A Conversation With Puzzle Master Wei-Hwa Huang

Screen Shot 2014 09 29 at 5.44.22 PM 300x200 A Conversation With Puzzle Master Wei Hwa Huang

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

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!

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.

THEN NOW 300x168 Gravity Maze is Here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

wired pic 300x148 Reflections on: ThinkFun and Robot Turtles in the Media

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!

Greetings and Salutations From SmartPlay’s New Author

throwback 300x201 Greetings and Salutations From SmartPlay’s New Author

Andrea and I back in the day wishing BinaryArts (ThinkFun’s original name) good luck at its launch.

Hello World! This is my debut post on the SmartPlay.com blog, so I figured I’d take a moment to introduce myself, share a little bit about what inspires me, and set some intentions about what you can expect from my posts moving forward.

A Little About Me

Some of you may know me as the CEO and Co-Founder of Thinkfun, the world’s leader in addictively fun games that build 21st century thinking skills through play. But I’m guessing that most of you may not know WHY I got into the game industry.
My lovely and inspiring wife, Andrea Barthello, and I founded ThinkFun on a dream. We wanted to change the world by translating the brilliant ideas of the craziest mathematicians, engineers and inventors into simple toys that could be appreciated by children of all ages. This was way back in 1985, and our name back then was BinaryArts (see our throwback photo that accompanies this post for visual aid).

In 2003, we changed our name from Binary Arts to ThinkFun and updated our mission to focus on the learning-through-play perspective. But not that much has changed since then. We still want to change the world, we just want to do it through play.

Lately, what I’m really enjoying is just how organically our newest games support some of the forward-thinking philosophies and curricula of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and STEAM (Science & Technology interpreted through Engineering & the Arts, all based in Mathematical elements) communities. If you don’t know much about these organizations yet, take a look at this video from Georgette Yakman, Founder/Teacher of STEAM.

A Little About Robot Turtles

So how does ThinkFun pay off our claim to ignite minds through play? Let’s take Robot Turtles as an example. The game sneakily teaches programming fundamentals to kids ages 3 and up and is the perfect expression of ThinkFun’s mission.

Robot Turtles players learn how to break one big problem into small steps, to think ahead, to work backwards, to look for patterns and to keep trying to fix their “bugs.”
 Playing is a lot like coding because:
• When a child lays down her cards, she is writing code.
• When a child rearranges his cards to fix what didn’t work, he is debugging.
• When a child discusses her strategy, she is commenting her code.
• When a child asks a parent to move the Turtle, he is running a program.
• When a child plays a Function Frog, she is executing a subroutine or a function.

I want to dive deeper into the mechanics here, but I’ll just share this 20 second video on how to play Robot Turtles instead, and wait until next week’s post to unpack the topic further.


A Little About What to Expect as the Blog Evolves

I plan on writing about once a week from now on, focusing on my take on the whacky world of creativity, problem solving and any general out-of-the-box thinking. I REALLY want to hear from you all as time goes on. What do you want to hear more about? What should I shut up about?

I’ll also reach out to some friends and colleagues to guest blog for me on these subjects from time to time, and I’ll do some “Greatest Hits” posts that bundle up a few of the fantastic posts from my SmartPlay blog predecessor, Charlotte Fixler.

Onward!

Why Our Education System Is So Stuck

blogPic 236x300 Why Our Education System Is So Stuck

Thinking Skills: Sigmund Freud Meets Apple Pie

For years I have been ranting about the American education system, how murky and ill prepared it is to consider new ideas. I gave a TEDx talk about this in 2012: one of my slides was a cartoon I had made to describe how profoundly confused the situation is.

Don’t worry if you don’t get this cartoon… you’re not supposed to. The idea is that it’s an enigma… something so ingrained you’re not sure if you are allowed to think that you don’t understand it.

The biggest thing gnawing at me the past few years has been the “HOW” question… this is such an important topic, how could things have gotten to be this way?

And so I was very happy to find the answer lurking inside an article in last Sunday’s Washington Post, about Bill Gates and the new Common Core education standards.

Says Gates: “The funding, in general, of what works in education… is tiny. It’s the lowest in this field than any field of human endeavor. … As a result, there is a paucity of information about methods of instruction that work.”

So why is it that I’ve had these murky, queasy feelings about education? Because it turns out the American Education system has the lowest R&D funding of any field of human endeavor! This starts to make sense now.

OK then… with this post I’ve dug a little bit into what the problem is. Next look for some solution ideas.

And do read the Washington Post piece. It turns out that Gates is using his millions to rebuild the entire USA education system, makes for a fascinating and revealing read.

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Robot Turtles: A Fun Way to Target Social Communication & Coding Skills

The following post is shared by speech-language pathologist Eric Sailers of Expressive Solutions, a company that develops apps for learners with special needs.  In this post, originally posted here, he shares some phenomenal insight about the power of game play to target and support specific communications skills.

RT Banner 300x87 Robot Turtles: A Fun Way to Target Social Communication & Coding Skills

If you are looking for a fun way to target social communication skills, as well as beginning computer programming, Robot Turtles is a great new board game you can play with your students (with or without autism). Robot Turtles requires players to use simple commands to move their turtles to capture a jewel on the game board. When students give commands, they are replicating the process computer programmers use to give instructions for a computer to execute. Games, in general, provide opportunities for social communication; Robot Turtles in particular involves specific interactions between the game players that enable more opportunities for social communication. For students who show an interest in games and computers, playing Robot Turtles can be a highly engaging way to practice social communication.

During game play, it is easy to provide students with opportunities to practice five different social communication skills:

1) Perspective taking

As turtle masters, students take the perspective of their turtles on the game board in order to decide which way to move. If they were to take their own perspectives, players may not move in the intended direction; success in the game depends on the ability to make decisions based on a different perspective.

2) Turn taking

Students also actively take turns throughout the game. Not only do they have to wait for the other turtle masters to complete their turns, but students do not actually move their own game pieces. The adult overseeing the game, otherwise known as the turtle mover, is in charge of executing the moves on the game board based on student commands.

3) Eye contact and body language

Since turtle masters don’t move their own pieces, they must clearly communicate their commands to the turtle mover. This offers a good opportunity to practice politely giving directions, as well as utilizing eye contact and body language to effectively communicate and acknowledge the turtle mover.

4) Following directions

In return, the turtle mover may communicate directions for the turtle masters to follow. The turtle mover also ensure players are aware of and adhere to the rules of the game.

5) Making comments

Throughout game play, students can be encouraged to make positive comments directed specifically to other turtle masters. For example, a student could say, “Nice move. I like how you did that!” when another player makes a good move in the game. In Robot Turtles, the goal is not to have one winner; all students keep playing until they achieve the goal for that specific level. Establishing a positive atmosphere where everyone is encouraged to be successful creates a great opportunity for modeling and practicing comments.

Robot Turtles can be played with children as young as four, all the way up to middle or high school. The game has several levels so it is easy to adapt game play based on student age and experience with the game. The upper levels of the game require sophisticated logic and analytical skills to complete the challenges, while the simple levels introduce children to basic logic. Either way, social communication skills can be targeted in various ways throughout the game.

Robot Turtles in action

The Gift of Coding

Since ThinkFun announced the launch of Robot Turtles – the board game that teaches coding to preschoolers – some fantastic conversations have emerged about the importance of coding literacy for the very youngest learners. The theme that’s tied these discussions together has, interestingly, been less about the hard skills of coding, and more about the thinking processes that develop organically as young minds are taught to think like a programmer.

Robot Turtles in action The Gift of Coding

I love this quote by game’s inventor Dan Shapiro, who explains that learning to code is like a gift we can give our children:

“There are two types of people in the world. People who think of computers as their masters and people who think of computers as their helpers. The future is going to be written by programmers and read by everyone else. I want to give my kids the gift of being able to express themselves through programming and the power that comes from being able to write software.

It’s not that I want them to be programmers. Being able to program will make them better at whatever they do. Having that skill is like being a great writer, having a love for learning, or having a deep foundation in mathematics. No matter what you do, programming unlocks doors for you, helps you express yourself, and helps you become more successful in anything you decide to do. It’s a gift you can give to your kid.”

rt box 262x300 The Gift of Coding

As we’ve worked through what coding means in the context of game play, it’s become clear that Robot Turtles supports critical thinking skills that go way beyond programming. Through play, children learn how to break a big problem into small steps, make a plan, work backwards, find patterns, and identify and fix “bugs” – these life skills will serve them far beyond game play!

To help clarify the links between playing with Turtles and learning to program, this document breaks down the ways in which this game teaches code – and a heck of a lot more!

 

Robot Turtles are on the way!

I am SO excited to share that the much-anticipated Robot Turtles games are on their way… we’re counting down the weeks until they arrive!  The best-selling board game in Kickstarter history, Robot Turtles is designed to teach coding skills to preschoolers.  Check it out!

Haven’t ordered your copy yet?  Get on it!  All pre-orders receive a *free expansion pack* that features:

  • 12 Pre-set Frog Favorite Cards
  • 32 Bonus Collectible Jewel Tokens
  • 10 Adventure Quests

Order now, and here’s a sneak peek at the package that will be headed your way in June… opening up a box of awesome is a pretty sweet way to kick off the summer!

DSC 0359 300x221 Robot Turtles are on the way!

 

 

 

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TED Talk Friday: Kids detecting cancer and playing dangerously

This month’s installment in our TED Talk Friday series featured two fantastic talks focused on kids…

First up, 15-year-old Jack Andraka spoke about his innovative new approach to detecting pancreatic cancer in a cheaper, less invasive, and more effective way than previous technology ever imagined… incredible.

Next, we listened to Gever Tulley talk about 5 dangerous things parents should let their kids do. As the founder of the Tinkering School, Tulley speaks passionately about letting kids take risks and exposing them to new opportunities to push boundaries and explore.

A little danger may be good for kids… grown-ups too!