A Review of “Happy Birthday, Robot!”

Over the last year or so, I’ve heard rumblings about Happy Birthday, Robot! by Daniel Solis. The game proper was getting a lot of buzz. A storytelling game, designed to be played with children…. I was intrigued. The method which Daniel used to fund the project (collecting pledges through Kickstarter.com) was generating discussion as well. And then, when Fred Hicks announced that Evil Hat was going to fund a larger print run, I really started to pay attention. I had missed the sponsorship period on Kickstarter.com, and now I’d have a chance to buy it! [1]

But, really, should I? I’ve been conscious of the fact that my roleplaying time has been constrained of late. Did I really need to add another book to the gaming shelf that I might never play? And so, reluctantly, I let the game sit.

One moral of this story is that it pays to follow Fred Hicks on Twitter (@fredhicks). A couple of months ago, he put out a call for reviewers for Happy Birthday, Robot! who would be able to play with children and review from that perspective.

I write about games. I have children. I wanted a comp copy of Happy Birthday, Robot! It seemed like a perfect match to me. So I put my name forward.

Fred agreed, and early last week, I received my copy of Happy Birthday, Robot! in the mail. For free!

In other words, yes, this is a comped review.

However, as I hope I’ve made clear, I was interested in this game long before Fred put out a call for reviewers. Also, receiving this game for free will not sway my judgment of the game. [2]

It doesn’t have to. This is a great game that stands on its own merits.

How the game is played

Happy Birthday, Robot! is a collaborative storytelling game. By following the rules of the game, the players write a little story about a robot named Robot.

Because the game is collaborative, no one wins or loses. In fact, as you’ll see in a moment, the game actively encourages cooperation between the players.

When it’s my turn, I’m the Storyteller. The players to my right and left are my Neighbors. Together, we will write the next sentence in Robot’s story.

The first thing that I do as the Storyteller is roll up to three dice. Some of these I keep and some I give to my Neighbors, depending on what I roll. I can keep doing this until one of my Neighbors has four dice or more.

At this point, I get to start writing the sentence. Each die that I have gives me one word for the sentence. Plus, I can use Robot’s name for free (like “Robot” or “Robot’s”). Then the Neighbor to my right gets to add words to the sentence equal to the number of dice that he has. He also gets a free word: “and”. Finally, the Neighbor to my left gets to add words to the sentence based on the number of dice that he got. His free word is “but”.

I’m going to cheat and steal an example from the book. Let’s say that I got three dice. I could write this as my sentence:

    Robot sees a flower.

See? I used three words plus my free word “Robot”.

Then, the “And” Neighbor goes. Let’s say he has two dice. So he changes the sentence like so:

    Robot sees a flower and a starship.

Two words added, plus his free word.

Finally, the “But” Neighbor goes. If he had three dice, he might adjust the sentence like so:

    Robot sees a flower and a starship that is crashing.

Three more words, and he chose not to use his free word.

Then, I would get a coin for each die that I got (in this case, three), and then it’s the next player’s turn.

Pretty simple, huh?

Those coins are pretty clever, too. They don’t actually help the person who earned them. Instead, the player who earned them can give them to a different player, who then gets one extra word for each coin that he was given.

You keep playing until someone ends up with ten coins. At the end of that round, you do a special Epilogue round to end the story. Then you’re done!

A little about the book

First, you just have to check out the art for Happy Birthday, Robot!. Probably the simplest way to do this is to check out this trailer for the game on Youtube. Isn’t it adorable?

And that’s what the book looks like. Bright and cheerful, with lots of happy colors, cute animals, happy children and, of course, adorable robots.

Moreover, the book is made to look very similar to a children’s storybook. It would look more comfortable on a shelf next to Dr. Seuss than next to Grey Ranks or Hero’s Banner. (Yes, that’s where it lives on my gaming shelf. Alphabetization does funny things sometimes.)

I will admit that I chuckled a bit to see the toothy maw of the Evil Hat on the back amidst all the cuteness, but that doesn’t affect the aesthetics in the slightest. Happy Birthday, Robot! could easily take up residence in a children’s library or a homeschooling bookshelf and be perfectly at home.

I mention libraries and schooling for a reason. The book is filled with tips and hints addressed to teachers using the game as part of schooling. Many of these thoughts are written by Cassie Krause, a fourth-grade teacher who playtested the game with her class.

Also, the book is full of pictures and diagrams, showing exactly how the game is to be played. In fact, the rules summary for the game fits onto one page, but an entire chapter is dedicated to an extended example of play, which does a fine job of showing how to apply the rules in various circumstances. By the time I was finished reading the game, I felt confident that I could easily teach the game to my children.

And so I did.

A little discussion of our actual play

Quotable: “We don’t have enough words for [Roger] to die.”–Isaac, age 10

On Sunday, I sat down to play Happy Birthday, Robot! with my children and my sister Gabrielle. Originally I was going to play with the three older children, but Noah and Justice ended up being a part of the action. Noah played on Gabrielle’s team, and Justice helped me roll my dice.

I started by showing the book to the children and waving the pictures at them. My hope was that the artistic style would rub off and influence the game play. I wasn’t opposed to death-dealing robots of doom, but I wanted the kids to understand that this was primarily a cute game about children’s stories. I think that it worked fairly well.

The game assumes that you will be making special Robot dice, with two BLANK sides, two AND sides, and two BUT sides. This is one area where the small press nature of the game shows itself. I’d love to have custom dice for this game, but I know that there’s no way that Daniel Solis or Evil Hat would be able to pull that off. And, at least right now, I couldn’t be bothered to print little stickers and put them on my dice.

To his credit, Daniel includes simple instructions on how to play with regular six-sided dice. Basically, ones and twos count as BLANKS, threes and fours count as AND, and fives and sixes count as BUT. It works, but it wasn’t quite as intuitive as I would have liked. Oh well. Fudge dice would probably work as Robot dice, too.

I also decided that I didn’t want to use actual pennies for the coins. The game says to keep them on heads until you give them away, at which point you flip them to tails. My children are infamous for fiddling with game bits, and I figured that they would likely flip some of them over and then not remember if they were on heads or tails. Instead, I dug into my game design closet and got out some red and green glass beads. When you earned coins, you took red glass beads. Then, to give someone else a coin, you spent a red bead to give the other player a green bead. This worked out quite well.

Teaching the game was a snap. The kids grasped the rules quickly and were quickly caught up in the joy of rolling dice and earning words. The first hurdle arrived when one of the children didn’t have enough words to complete the full thought that he was wanting to express. Suddenly, the idea of “creative constraints” became apparent to the children. On the whole, though, I thought that they did quite well with the experience. In fact, I think that it was good for them. Constraints breed creativity, and the children rose to the occasion.

Over the next hour, we worked together to tell the story of Robot’s birthday. For your amusement, here’s the story we created.[3]

Happy Birthday, Robot! story
by Seth, Gabrielle, Arianna, Isaac, and Samuel
with assistance from Noah and Justice

Happy birthday, Robot!

Robosapien was happy it was Robot’s birthday, and so was Emily, but Roger was angry and jealous.

Roger left the treehouse, but more robots came for cake, and so did Emily.

But there was no cake, because Roger had smashed the cake into pieces.

Robot cried, and Robosapien offered to help.

Emily had a good idea–“Get more cake!”–but Roger destroyed the treehouse.

Robosapien got mad, and so did Emily, but Roger just laughed at them.

Robot punched Roger in the head, and Robosapien shot him with lasers, but Roger had a mech.

Roger destroyed the cake store with missiles and set Emily on fire.

Robot angrily kicked the mech, and it blew up, but Emily was badly hurt.

Robot knew that the only way to save Emily was cake, but there was no cake.

Robot got Emily chocolate cake from China, and Roger fixed the treehouse.

Roger said he was sorry, and they forgave him.

They all ate cake.

Robot was very happy.

And so was Emily.

Everyone was engaged from start to finish, and I think that they would all happily play again. I know I would.

Thoughts on the game design

While this game is designed to be played with children, I think that it definitely benefits from an adult player or facilitator. I almost want to say that an adult is necessary, but I don’t know your children. I do know that competition comes easily to people, but collaboration can be hard. Having someone at the table with the social “juice” to insist that the players work together and to set a positive example of how to do that is important.

At the same time, the game provides numerous opportunities for these lessons of cooperation and collaboration to be taught. The coins provide hard mechanical opportunity to help out the other players. Beyond that, there’s the give-and-take of ideas at the table. Gabrielle talked about the game requiring a “generosity of creative space”, where players need to be willing to offer their suggestions while remembering that there needs to be room for everyone’s ideas. This is a good skill for life, not just games, and few people learn it. So, in this way, I think playing Happy Birthday, Robot! is good for its players.

I do think that it’s important to note that Happy Birthday, Robot! isn’t a roleplaying game as such. The players do not adopt any alternate personas or engage with the developing fiction as a participant. The game is very much about a shared authoring experience, making it more of a storytelling game. Additionally, the game is focused almost exclusively on process, unlike most roleplaying games, which are usually more fluid in nature. In this way, Happy Birthday, Robot! joins games like 1001 Nights, A Penny for my Thoughts, and maybe even my own Showdown, where the processes of play are focused more on the authorial experience than the immersive experience of a character.[4]

I have to admit: I’m really digging these sorts of games. Unlike most roleplaying games, which tend to require extensive setup and pre-game prep, these sorts of games are closer to being boardgames or parlor games. You can pull one off the shelf without any previous preparation, play for an hour or two, and then be done without any further commitment.

This style of game is definitely a better choice for children. I’ve tried playing roleplaying games with my children, and, as a rule, they do not yet have the attention span or desire to play in a continuous game over multiple sessions. On the other hand, Happy Birthday, Robot! was simple, engaging, and then, it was over. This is a big deal, particularly to my children, who want to know what we’re going to play next.

At the same time, I think that children who have spent time playing Happy Birthday, Robot! will be better roleplayers.[5] The skills required to play this game well are easily transferred to a full-blown roleplaying experience, and this can only be a good thing.

I should offer a word of caution. The game says that it is for players ages 10 and up. I’d say that’s about right. Players do need to have a basic grasp of sentence structure and the like. So, while Noah (age 6) enjoyed being involved in the game, I don’t think that he’s quite ready to be on his own yet.

Final thoughts

I hope it’s clear that I really enjoyed this game. It’s the kind of game that I can play with my children, and I could even see getting it out to play with non-gamers some evening over drinks. I might even incorporate it into our homeschooling. I know that there are a lot of games out there demanding attention, but this one is definitely worth a second look.

I’ll put it like this: if you are a gamer with children, you should buy this game to play with them. If you are a gamer without children, I still think that you will enjoy this game. It’s light, frivolous, and highly entertaining.

You can buy Happy Birthday, Robot! at the Evil Hat webstore or Indie Press Revolution.


[1] I’ve noticed that footnotes are totally the “in” thing these days, so I’m going to use some. HT: Rob Donoghue.

[2] On the other hand, it does cement my opinion that Fred Hicks is a pretty cool guy.

[3] Yes, I know that “tree house” is actually two words. Well, I know now, since spellcheck informed me of that fact. Oops.

[4] Look, I know that the whole issue of defining what is and isn’t a roleplaying game is somewhat complex. I also know that this analysis is somewhat incomplete, fairly broad, and full of holes and exceptions. Nonetheless, I think my general point stands. The fact that Happy Birthday, Robot! calls itself a storytelling game supports my point. Also, of the game I named, I’m aware that 1001 Nights is something of an edge case, since you’re roleplaying characters who are telling stories.

[5] This point applies to improv theater or other form of collaborative expression.

3 responses to “A Review of “Happy Birthday, Robot!”

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