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A Conversation With Puzzle Master Wei-Hwa Huang

Wei-Hwa Huang getting his smiles and puzzles on.

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!

BigLeap Seeking Undiscovered Game Designers. $10K in Prizes to Help Kids Learn Via Play

Turning the crowd into a powerful new force for positive social change.

BigLeap, the world’s first crowd-funding prize and reward network for social good, is excited to announce that its first Challenge has passed its funding milestone and is moving into its competition phase.
BigLeap’s first challenge is championed by Professor Silvia Bunge, a neuroscience and childhood learning expert at U.C. Berkeley, and Bill Ritchie, the CEO of ThinkFun games. The challenge will give children everywhere access to fun, social, interactive games designed to engage the brain circuitry that supports reasoning.”Neuroscience research shows that what we do on a daily basis influences how our brains function, and behavioral studies in children suggest that the right kind of play is more than just fun—it can actually improve reasoning skills. Putting these two lines of research together, we believe that, over time, practice with mentally challenging games can strengthen the brain network that

supports reasoning,” says Bunge.“We are at the cusp of a real revolution in how we define play,” adds Ritchie. “We are incredibly excited to have passed the first stage of our BigLeap Challenge. As a result we now have a $10,000 prize pool to get the best minds across the country thinking about creative new game programs that can do exactly what Silvia describes.”Competitors to the Challenge will be asked to submit their ideas for a game that teaches critical thinking skills, can be made usi
 ng common or low-cost items, and incorporates one or more of the following:

  • Improves Executive Function – Stresses working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution.
  • Promotes physical activity – Requires physical activity and movement while stimulating the mind.
  • Fosters teamwork – Brings people together to inspire teamwork and creative problem solving.
  • Is designed for tournament play – Challenges critical thinking, problem solving or math skills while elegantly balancing different skill levels in players.

“Sometimes, the best solution for a problem comes from the people you would never think to ask,” says Victor Cho, co-founder of BigLeap. “We fundamentally believe that there are tens of thousands of people, probably even more, around the world who have a passion for children’s education, know how to keep young students engaged, and could come up with a compelling new game program for this competition. Our site simply enables advocates like Bill and Silvia to create the incentive to bring those people forward to create meaningful impact.”The competition formally kicks off on November 2nd, 2013 and will run through December 2nd, 2013. New competitors can join the Challenge at any time up until the submission window. Winners will be selected and announced on December 16, 2013 after a two week judging period that includes both education and gaming experts as well as real-world feedback from school children. The winning concepts will be made available, free of charge, to the world via electronic download. $10,000 in total prizes will be awarded, made up of a $5,000 first prize, $2,000 second prize, and three $1,000 runner-up prizes.For full details on this Challenge and to register to compete please visit: BIGLEAP.ORG
BigLeap is the world’s first crowd-funding prize and reward network that enables anyone to drive social change through competition-based challenges. The BigLeap platform connects passionate advocates of social issues with the funding and resources needed to solve them in innovative new ways. Unlike other crowd-funding sites or traditional nonprofits, BigLeap only distributes a reward or prize when a challenge has been successfully solved. Because contributors can opt to get their money back if a challenge isn’t solved they are effectively guaranteed that their support dollars will have an impact.

Greetings Friends – Please Help Me Find Good Gamification and Project Based Learning Examples

Andrea wears a Fitbit.  She began taking it seriously when our son Sam became her online coach and cheerleader and started tracking her progress through the Fitbit app.  Once she discovered that she could set goals and earn badges for “step milestones” she got really into it. She’s walking more now, she keeps track of how much exercise she’s getting, and she feels great about it—because she’s connected to Sam and because staying fit has become somewhat of a game for her.

Andrea wears a Fitbit.

This isn’t just happening to Andrea, it’s everywhere!  It’s called “gamification.”  Gamification is the process of using game mechanics to shape human behavior in prescribed ways. Jane McGonigal gave a TED Talk where she described her game called Super Better, her talk has pretty much become the unofficial gamification movement anthem.  Here is a link to the talk, it is definitely worth watching.

Jane McGonigal talks at TED about gamification

And then there’s the example of Foldit–the “solve puzzles for science” crowdsourcing experiment that encourages gamers to play a game of folding proteins with the larger goal of making scientific advances. Just like other online games, Foldit includes various game mechanics—such as leaderboards–to reward and motivate players.


With this new gamification movement afoot, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means for the toy and game industry. One would think that this would be a revolution of sorts in the industry. People are finally viewing games as having some higher purpose. They can help you to reach a goal, make you smarter, a better friend or citizen or keep you on track with your exercise routine or diet.

I am not seeing as much as I would expect to from our industry.  What is your perspective?   I welcome your thoughts and I would love to learn more about what’s actually out there.

Please share any examples of creative and successful Gamification style programs that are being used for kids. Just “reply” to this post, give a short description of the program and include a link so that everyone can find it for themselves.  With a little luck we’ll end up with a long string of creative ideas that leads to a bigger conversation.

Take a peek at some of the examples we’ve already collected here.

Fight summer brain drain at ThinkFun Camp!

Spring is in the air… which means SUMMER is right around the corner!

Planning summer activities that are not only fun for kids but that also keep their minds engaged (and prevent the dreaded “summer slide”) can be a challenge… which is why I’m thrilled to share a super fun new program to help!

Do you live in the DC/MD/VA area?  If so, what could be better than celebrating the fun of summer time than a week at THINKFUN CAMP!?

ThinkFun has teamed up with Baroody Camps to challenge young minds this summer!  In these week-long full day sessions, ThinkFun games will be adapted to test players individually and as a team. Each day, campers will work together to solve puzzles and problems, exercising critical thinking and collaboration through friendly competition!  Fun-loving counselors will provide learning support, helping players reflect on their thinking, build new strategies, and – most importantly – have a blast!


ThinkFun Camp runs from 9am – 3:30pm for rising K-8th and is open for online and paper registrations.

These one-week camps are being offered at 5 locations in the DC-area:


Alexandria Country Day School

2400 Russell Road
Alexandria, VA 22301
7/09 – 7/13


Holy Cross Academy

250 Stafford Lakes Parkway
Fredericksburg, VA 22406
7/23 – 7/27


Saint John Academy

6422 Linway Terrace
McLean, VA 22101
6/25 – 6/29


St. Louis Catholic School

2901 Popkins Lane
Alexandria, VA 22306
7/16 – 7/20


St. Bernadette’s Catholic School

7602 Old Keene Mill Road
Springfield, VA 22152
716 – 7/20


Lessons learned from the US Women’s Soccer World Cup

HUGE congratulations to the US Women’s Soccer team for this afternoon’s semifinal victory over France!  Whenever there are inspirational stories that capture the nation, the former teacher in me can’t help but wonder how I would use them as learning opportunities – old habits die hard I suppose!  I was thrilled to come across this post after Sunday’s mind-blowing victory over Brazil on important life lessons that can be drawn from this team’s incredible accomplishment – learning through play at its best!

Lessons learned from the US Women’s Soccer world cup victory over Brazil

Posted on July 11, 2011 by Diane K. Danielson
As an avid soccer fan and player, this weekend’s quarterfinal USA win over Brazil will go down in my mind as one of my favorite sports moments.  The US went ahead early on an “own goal” by Brazil, but then due to a travesty of bad calls and bad acting by Brazil, found themselves trailing 2-1 by the end of the second OT. With only a minute left, we managed to put in a beautiful header to send us to penalty kicks, which we won. To add to the drama, this was exactly 12 years to the day after the US women beat China in penalty kicks to win the world cup in the Rose Bowl after Brandi Chastain took the final go-ahead kick.There were a lot of lessons to be learned from that game, and from the 2011 Women’s World Cup. 

1.  Young girls need to see role models. Kudos to ESPN for running all the games. Some said no one would watch, but the US-Brazil shootout was the most watched tournament game since 1999 (when the Women’s World Cup was in the US). I especially liked that for most of the tournament, the half-time announcers were 3 women (including the afore-mentioned Brandi Chastain). For the US game, they did bring in veteran male sports reporters, but it wasn’t necessary. The gals were doing great, and the males were already adequately represented by Ian Darke who does fabulous play-by-play commentary along with US Women’s Team veteran Julie Foudy.

2.  It takes a complete team to win the big ones. There was a lot of talk about Marta, the Brazilian player who has been voted best player in the world 5 times. But, while she and a handful of her teammates had footskills and speed that surpassed the US, we worked together as a team. This was never more apparent than after a tough call by the ref, who gave an unnecessary red card to the US in the 60th minute, meant our women had to play short-handed for the remainder of the game.  In addition, the key to the tying goal by the US in the last minute of play was a left-footed cross by Megan Rapinoe who came off the bench mid-game. Your team is only as good as the depth of your bench.

3.  Preparation is key.  The reason the US women won came down to pure physical stamina and the ability to handle pressure.

4.  Sometimes life isn’t fair. A lot of calls went against the US including the red card,  a blocked penalty kick being called a do-over, and a missed off-sides call that led to Brazil’s go-ahead goal. After every setback, our US team didn’t dwell on it, but focused and played even better.

5. Karma does catch up with you. After a Brazilian player faked an injury to run out the clock (while they were ahead), the US used the extra stoppage time added back on the clock at the end to score in the final minute to tie. Yep. These things do come back to haunt you.

6. These women do this for the love of the game. There is no big money in women’s soccer, and while a couple might get sponsorships, they are terrific role models that all our daughters (and sons) should see. There are some fabulous stories behind all the players. Hope Solo, who is now arguably the best goaltender in the world was once dropped from the team a few years back.  Ali Krieger, who scored the final penalty kick goal, had a life threatening illness a few years ago; and Christie Rampone, at 34 and one of the oldest players in the league, is also a mother of two who kept Brazil’s 25-year old Marta in check for the entire 122 minutes of play.

Diane K. Danielson is the founder of the Downtown Women’s Club and a marketing consultant with DKD New Media Strategies (and still plays soccer despite being old enough to wear #9 on the soccer field before Mia Hamm was even born …)

A Creative Mom Uses 36 Cube to Build Early Math Skills!

The following post is from the Pajama Projects blog. Written by a former teacher turned stay-at-home mom, Pajama Projects shares fantastic tips and ideas for teaching young children through innovative and fun at-home activities!

We love the way this creative mom took “The World’s Most Challenging Puzzle” and made it an age-appropriate math challenge for her young learner!


ThinkFun 36 Cube

This is our own way to use ThinkFun’s 36 Cube.  You can find this puzzle and the real way to use it by clicking here.  For those of you who like those golf tee puzzles at Cracker Barrel – this one is for you, but it’s a bit more challenging.

We play with this almost daily, but in our own way.  We sometimes sort by color- get all the greens together, all the oranges, and so on.  Then we sort them from shortest to tallest or tallest to shortest.  Sometimes we put all the tall ones together, and then group them by size rather than color.  There are so many ways to play with them.  They also have grooves in them, where they are sectioned, so we can group by the number of sections each has as well.  This helps improve counting skills.

Overall, we have not used this game as intended at all, but have found it to be one we go to often and are always finding new fun and educational things to do with “it”.  Check it out… it really is a good one for all the family (for different reasons)!

Playing Games with Problem Solving!

The following post is by Dawn Morris, whose blog Moms Inspire Learning focuses on resources and strategies to inspire lifelong learning, reading, and leading.  A former CPA, Dawn changed careers and earned an M.A. in Childhood Education and now shares her passion for teaching kids to embrace a lifelong love of learning!

The following is an excerpt from Dawn’s recent post on problem solving games.  Read her complete article here!


Sometimes, it amazes me how much out-of-the-box thinking can be packaged inside one game box.

Even if you just have a deck of cards, there are probably millions of different games which can be played – not to mention ones you think up on your own. It doesn’t matter which one you play, as long as you do take time out to play it!  Just as my daughter started to cook on her own, children will eventually start to play games on their own as well.

We love to play all kinds of board and card games together.  And we’ve done that ever since they were toddlers, really. There are games out there for all ages. It doesn’t matter what kind of game it is, as long as it’s unplugged. Video games can be educational too, but we have to limit them like any other form of screen time.

As my sister-in-law is a very busy mom of three, I’m always on the lookout for toys, games, and books which will make her life a little easier.  So, wanting similar gifts for my 8 year old twin nephews, I ended up purchasing  Chocolate Fix and Rush Hour. They’re geared to children over the age of 8, but people of all ages will love the challenge of them, as there are 4 levels of play.

Before I tell you just a little bit about each of these games, let me just tell you I love most about them: they can be played independently, or with a partner, AND they’re portable and can be played anywhere – even in the car! What a great, unplugged way to keep children (and even teens) entertained and busy while you do something else.

51mWMzAS5ZL._SL160_ Chocolate Fix comes with 9 “chocolates,” a little notebook of different patterns to solve (kind of like Sudoku, but with colors and shapes), a game tray, and a bag to store it all in. As long as there aren’t any toddlers around, who might actually try to eat the chocolates, it’s a great game to leave out on the coffee table or in your car. Whenever a family member has a spare ten minutes, like when a child is waiting for you to finish something, what a great way to sneak a little fun and problem solving in there!

The same goes for the award winning Rush Hour, only there are individual cards instead of a notebook, and there are 16 cars and trucks, instead of chocolates. This game is a little different, though, in that you arrange the trucks on the game board according to the cards (from beginner to expert). Then, you have to find a way to get the red car out of traffic. It’s literally stuck between the other cars, and you have to move them around (forward and backward only) to clear a path. What a great way to keep children busy while you’re stuck in traffic!  ThinkFun Rush Hour Jr. is available for even younger children.

511EoXSDVcL._SL160_Recently, ThinkFun was kind enough to send me their newest game, ThinkFun Solitaire Chess, for review. If you’re thinking about teaching your child to how to play chess, this is the game for you!  It’s also a one player game, and you have to know how each piece moves. If you don’t already know how, it’s great practice.

Like Rush Hour and Chocolate Fix, Solitaire Chess is all about the problem solving. As a matter of fact, when we first opened up the box, it was a challenge just to figure out how to get the mats out of the game tray! They were in there snugly.

The game tray is set up like a mini Chess board, and each mat has a different combination of pieces for you to set up. The object is to capture pieces until you’re left with just one. Which one you choose to move first makes all the difference. Whether you use the “guess and check” method and just start moving pieces, or you move the pieces around in your mind before you actually move one, it’s a great exercise in spatial perception, critical thinking, and logic.

I really enjoyed playing all three of these games, as did other members of our family. They’re perfect for busy families, and can challenge people of every age. Whether you leave one out on your coffee table, or in the car, you can set it up and play within seconds.

So, the next time your child says, “Are we there yet?” or “There’s nothing to do” and you need a few more minutes of alone time, one of these games might just solve your problem.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Mathletes Take on Chocolate Fix at the Ontario Mathematics Olympiad

The Ontario Mathematics Olympiad, (OMO) is an annual mathematics competition featuring teams of the best grade 7 and 8 math students from across Ontario. This year’s Olympiad featured 124 students (31 teams of 4) who completed 4 contests, one of which included a logical thinking challenge featuring specially designed Chocolate Fix puzzles!

The following guest post is by Jeff Irwin, Contest Committee Chair for the OMO 2010 Venncouver Olympics

For the Ontario Math Olympics, contests are created to challenge teams of 4 students. These teams are the regional champions from all of Ontario. It was our hope to create a series of contests that both challenged the Mathlete and were fun to complete.

As part of a Basketball challenge, Chocolate Fix provided the ideal logical thinking exercise. The Basketball event consisted of 4 quarters (challenges) that were completed as a team. The four quarters were 1. a manipulative logic puzzle, *Chocolate Fix, 2. a graph match challenge using TI-84’s and a CBR unit, 3. a design challenge using cube-a-links, and 4. an optimization problem.

Rules for the OMO Basketball Challenge

The fact that Chocolate Fix is as logic puzzle that uses physical manipulatives instead of pencil and paper appealed to the Contest Committee. The team saw the challenge sheet, then had to communicate amongst themselves to place each chocolate piece in the correct position. As the students rotated through the four quarters of the Basketball event, you could hear the excitement as they completed each Chocolate Fix challenge!

A sample OMO team challenge

All teams enjoyed the Chocolate Fix activity and when there was extra time at the end of the contest rotation, the teams often tackled the regular challenges. Throughout lunch and during breaks students could be overheard discussing how much they enjoyed this event!

As a side note, my enthusiasm for ThinkFun games convinced other organizing committee members to purchase and distribute 20 ThinkFun games as thank-you gifts to our high school cabin counselors. It was their role to help students from across the province bond as cabin mates and ensure that teams arrived at the correct contest on time… so now 20 more families will have the opportunity to enjoy ThinkFun products!

A full set of contests is available on the OMO website which can be accessed by following the links on Thank you once again for all your support in this endeavor!

Hug a Teacher Today!

Today is National Teacher Appreciation Day!

As a former teacher who grew up idolizing her teachers, I truly, truly believe that our teachers are the hardest-working, most wonderful people in the world… and am thrilled to have an official day on which the celebrate all the fabulous educators out there!  In case you don’t hear it enough today and every day, THANK YOU for all you do!

On a recent trip home, my mom asked me to sort through some of my “treasure boxes” (a kind way to refer to my pack rat collection of memories from each year of my life through college!).  As I sorted through these artifacts, deciding which best told the story of my childhood, I found my “save pile” consisted more of the notes, letters, and reports from my teachers than the increasingly artistic scribbles and schoolwork produced by yours truly!

I was incredibly lucky to spend my formative years at the wonderful and nurturing Capitol Hill Day School (any alums out there?!), and to this day think of every teacher I had from PreK to 8th grade as if they were part of my family.

Goofiest school picture ever - a 2nd grade treasure recently unearthed!

The notes I saved in my Treasure Box include letters my teachers sent over the summer telling me how excited they were to have me in their class in the fall, postcards gushing over a turtle magnet I’d made from a walnut shell and scrap of felt, a card inviting me to join my favorite teacher for a special lunchtime chat when my new sister was born… and pages and pages of handwritten reports from my teachers to my parents, describing their observations, ways to support the learning I was doing, things I needed help with, successes they’d observed… there were piles of these notes I found saved from each year of my childhood… and together they tell a powerful story about the enormous role these teachers had in shaping who I am today… treasures indeed!

Take a moment today to think about, and better yet to THANK, the amazing teachers in your life, whether they are colleagues who inspire you, classroom teachers who enrich the lives of your children each day, professors, your dog’s trainer, scout leaders, religious school teachers, your yoga instructor… just say THANK YOU!

As an aside, couldn’t resist sending this slightly snarky Teacher Day Card to a dear friend and high school teacher…

Who was your favorite teacher growing up?  Share your teacher shout-outs and thank your favorite teachers here!