With basketball, Lego League and piano lessons, Oliver Boswell is one busy 10-year-old.
So sometimes he gets up early to make time to play his favorite game, the Turing Tumble.
“I think it’s making me smarter, but it’s fun even if you are learning,” he said.
Oliver got a jump on playing with the Turing Tumble, which only recently arrived in toy stores, because his parents created the mechanical computer game in their Shoreview home.
“We turned our basement bedroom into an office that we call world headquarters,” said Alyssa Boswell, 37.
Her husband Paul, 36, invented the Turing Tumble, named as a tribute to British mathematician Alan Turing, who pioneered the concept of the modern computer.
“It helps kids understand the logic of computers, but it’s unplugged; there’s no screen,” Paul said.
While it’s notoriously difficult to break into the game industry, the Turing Tumble, which sells for $70, is off to a roaring start. Even before it hit the stores, it earned a Parent’s Choice Gold Award, with judges of the prestigious annual award calling it “incredibly compelling.”
In the past year, the Boswells raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, demonstrated the prototype at the nation’s annual Toy Fair in New York City, and oversaw its production in China.
That’s pretty heady stuff for a couple who were just tinkering with an idea for a game three years ago.
“We put in a lot of elbow grease on this thing,” said Paul, who ended up quitting his job at a software firm to develop and promote the game. “And we weren’t afraid to ask questions that sound dumb.”
Boswell holds a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the University of Minnesota. While working as a research chemist there, he found that many of the students in his lab lacked programming and coding skills.
At home, he was building electronic robots and playing computer games with his three young sons. But he was frustrated that the play options showed what computers can do, but not how computers work.
Three years ago, he began tinkering with a game in which players build marble-powered computers on a vertical board to solve logic problems.
“Sending information down the board shows the fundamental concept: how a bunch of simple switches connected together in clever ways can do things,” he said. “When they [players] are led through these logic puzzles, they develop critical thinking and raw coding skills without even realizing it.”
Using a 3-D printer, he fiddled with his project, creating multiple iterations to get it right. The final version, with a total of 105 pieces, allows players to solve 51 increasingly difficult logic puzzles.
All in on the game
Last June, the Boswells launched a Kickstarter campaign, complete with a YouTube video (shot in their kitchen) of Paul introducing the Turing Tumble with his sons and some of their friends.
Alyssa also sent e-mails about the campaign to “everyone we knew,” she said, hoping for micro-investments from friends and family. And she pitched the game to a handful of websites that review tech toys and games with a STEM focus.
The had couple set a modest fundraising goal of $48,000, so they were amazed as the money rolled. They met their goal in 14 hours.
“By the next day, it doubled,” Paul said. “We were blown away.”
Posts about the Turing Tumble showed up on high-traffic websites Tech Crunch, Toy Insider and Popular Mechanics, which called it “brilliant and delightful.” A few parenting sites reposted their video on social media, including fatherly.com, which has a million Facebook followers.
“It snowballed without a lot of effort on our part,” Alyssa said.
By the time the monthlong Kickstarter campaign concluded, the Boswells had raised almost 10 times their original goal, an astonishing $405,000, from backers who pledged cash to get the game for themselves.
That’s when Paul quit his job and Alyssa, a former teacher with a master’s in education, spent her days developing the packaging, outreach and marketing.
Steve Nordhus, owner of ABC & Toy Zone stores in Chanhassen and Rochester, spotted the Turing Tumble at the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association show, where merchandise is pitched to independent toy stores rather than mass marketers. He ordered a shelf full of the game.
“We see a need for more STEM products,” he said. “Teachers and parents are always looking for something great in that niche to challenge their kids.”
Nordhus will highlight the game with an in-store display to let children get their hands on it.
The Boswells have been promoting the Turing Tumble to schools and libraries to use in classes, after-school programs and coding clubs. They’ve showed a prototype at a district meeting of librarians in the Mounds View School District, where their boys are students.
“It’s supercool, a strong hands-on mechanical tool,” said Julie Reimer, a librarian at Turtle Lake Elementary, who also teaches information literacy skills to students. “It shows how those underlying computer functions work.”
The Boswells, college sweethearts who met at Bethel University, are optimistic about their homemade game. In fact, they’re thinking about their next STEM toy.
They’re getting used to the idea that their side project has turned into their livelihood.
“We’re having so much fun, building this together,” Alyssa said.
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.