Stephanie: My kids also grew up with a parent in “toys.” Did you enjoy being on the front lines at ThinkFun? Did you help test new games as a child?
Sam: I certainly did help with new games as a kid, though I don’t remember feeling like a tester, really — the parents were always excited about some game or another, and didn’t hold back about sharing at the dinner table. I do see, in retrospect, that Bill and Andrea always had a masterful, nearly intuitive sense of the incentive structures that resonated with kids. Some nights, my brother and I would play a dozen Rush Hour challenges before we’d be allowed to have dessert. On a larger timescale, back when high speed internet became available, my parents signed us up for a monthly plan, on the condition that we each deliver two monthly short stories for their inspection.
Seriously, though, I’d say it was memorable because of how unforced the whole thing was. I look back now and realize how much pressure my parents must have been under, starting a puzzle company and growing the thing from scratch. They never gave the impression that they were financially concerned with how well a game played; we were just having fun at the dinner table. Little did I know they were turning around and selling off the good games to other families, all around the world. (Photo above: Sam at age 10- about the time he invented Math Dice!).
Stephanie: What were your favorite toys as a child (excluding ThinkFun games of course!)?
Sam: I’m going to have to go with Legos. I found great joy in following the instructions and assembling kits as they were supposed to be assembled. I remember looking back on this as a teenager and feeling troubled about my lack of experimentation with kits. I was nervous at that point that I wasn’t “creative” enough, that working within constraints was some sign that I was a robot, destined to follow others’ instructions! This turned out to be a misconception; the technical boundaries you run up against when building an app have led to some of our most creative breakthroughs.
So, let’s go with Legos – and super soakers. (I actually did go through an odd Care Bear and trolls phase, if we’re being completely honest, here.)
Stephanie: I understand that you hold a patent for Math Dice? How did you come up with the idea?
Sam: Math Dice came about for a sixth grade “Invent a Game!” competition for math class. For other reasons, we had bags and bags of colored dice in a closet somewhere — it was always easy to find potential game pieces, much like kids with parents who work as artist must have paints and easels close at hand.
I think Math Dice was the clear result of an attempt to make up a game using only dice. We have a random roll, various numbers… why not combine them in novel ways? Hell, why not make that the game? I was perfectly willing to shut the book on that one and call the assignment a wrap.
Stephanie: How did you pitch the concept to your folks?
Sam: You know, I didn’t, to be honest. Bill, my dad, continued to coach this 6th grade class on their game competition, and for lack of any other material brought in the old Math Dice package. (v1 was housed inside one of those exploding snake cans you find at magic shops.)
Unexpectedly, kids really, really loved the demo. I don’t think anyone at ThinkFun had really considered that this might be a game, until these sixth graders started to get so fired up. The project snowballed into a school competition, and then an inter-school competition, across state lines, actually. I’d say the game pitched itself.
Stephanie: I love that you’re involved with bringing ThinkFun games to the world of Apps…did you ever imagine that you’d be involved with the family business as an adult?
Sam: No! I never knew what they did at the office, when I was a kid. I knew that adults sat at desks and typed, but figured they were doing homework, or something like that. It sounded terrible. I’ve since learned that I wasn’t too far off the mark!
I thought I might help, but never imagined that I’d be involved at this level. I actually didn’t know how to code, until this project. It just seemed like something that needed to be done, and rather than try to communicate that to someone outside the family, I decided to figure it out myself. It’s always felt like I’ve been working with partners, rather than my parents. I couldn’t have asked for better employers!
Stephanie: M&Ms or Skittles?
Sam: Peanut Butter M&Ms. I’ll eat an entire bag during a long canoe workout. The heartburn gets tough about halfway through, but it just hurts so damned good.
Stephanie: Favorite ice cream flavor?
Sam: I spent a lot of years as a competitive kayaker, where being a hulking physical giant is a big advantage – I don’t exactly fit this description, so I spent a good amount of time looking for ways to supplement my usual diet. After discovering that Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby had 1500 calories per pint, it became my favorite. (It didn’t stick to the muscles, unfortunately, but it was a good relationship while it lasted.)