Happy Birthday, Robot! is a lovely game that is self-contained, quick to learn and designed as a group storytelling activity for children, in a classroom environment or elsewhere. I’m reviewing it partly because I find it a fascinating example of roleplaying games as a teaching tool. Specifically, what it’s teaching here (as well as verbal skills, socialising, reasoning, grammar, etc.) is collaboration.
Happy Birthday, Robot! is the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign by designer Daniel Solis, who is most famous for Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, another beautifully-designed game accessible to children as well as adults. Happy Birthday, Robot! is a great deal simpler, as it creates a story that is only fifty or so words long at the end, built word-by-word through dice rolls and the power of sharing. Sounds too cute to be true? As I was reading Happy Birthday, Robot!, I was struck by how well it distils the concept and practice of collaborative roleplaying.
The recommended number of players is 3-5, since otherwise the story goes on too long, but there are loads of suggestions of ways to adapt play to larger groups, players with different needs and even tips on how to use elements of the story to reinforce co-operative behaviour. The story always begins with ‘Happy Birthday, Robot!’ and, on their turn, players roll special dice with two blank sides, and two sides with arrows facing in opposite directions saying ‘AND’ and ‘BUT’. Each blank face gives the active player a word they can contribute to the story, and any arrow faces go to the players on your left and right depending on which way the arrow is facing – so, all the ANDs go right and all the BUTs go left. The player gets to write down as many words as they have dice showing the blank face, and then the players on the right and left get to add as many words as they have dice in front of them. Players have free words (the active player has ‘Robot’ and the players to the left and right have ‘and’ and ‘but’) and the game suggests you take this as an opportunity to teach the power of things like contractions. There’s a whole system of exchanging and awarding coins for extra words that I won’t go into now, mainly because I want to explore it in more depth at a later date as a beautifully simple tutorial in the principles of collaborative storytelling. However, it all seems to work as a system and at the end of it, you have a collaborative story about a Robot going on an adventure.
This is definitely a very light game, which is precisely what it’s designed to be. It’s friendly and fun, a sweet party game or teaching tool, and I’m really glad it exists. I could imagine that a teacher or parent could start modifying the system (maybe even taking suggestions from kids) once everyone’s familiar with it. The book is also gorgeous, with illustrations of weird and wonderful characters by Rin Aiello, which can serve as inspiration for stories if people are stuck. I could see how you could use this as a base line storytelling tool similar to Story Cubes and progress on to things like Do at a later date to deepen the players’ understanding and introduce concepts like playing a character. Check this out if you want to see a really great example of accessible RPGs that can be used in an educational setting to great effect.