Review “Happy Birthday, Robot!”

The Happy Birthday, Robot! logo

The HBR lettermark

Gamers with young families perennially wonder how best to introduce their little geeklings to gaming, especially the non-digital kind. While Candyland (and its German, less boring relative, Gulo Gulo) and Snakes & Ladders are traditional starting places, roleplayers usually have to wait until their kids are nine or ten to share their hobby. While it is not a roleplaying game, Daniel Solis‘s newest game, Happy Birthday, Robot! is now an option for gamers who want to introduce their kids to collaborative storytelling as they are old enough to write a basic sentence with a little help from their parents. It can also be played as a party game by adults who are comfortable with their inner child, or as an activity for mixed groups of adults and children.

Simple Premise – There’s a Robot, It’s His Birthday, and His Friends Want Him to be Happy

In Happy Birthday, Robot! (HBR for short), the players work together to write a short story that emulates the form of a children’s story. The story is written one sentence at a time, with three players having input into each sentence.

A happy friend races toward an startled Robot on her pony

A scene from a game of Happy Birthday, Robot!

The mechanics of the game are simple enough that I risk telling you the whole thing if I try to describe HBR in much detail. In short, though, the game and the story begin with the sentence “Happy birthday, Robot!” On her turn, a player rolls dice, keeping some and passing others to her neighbours on either side, depending on what face they show. The active player then writes a number of words up to the number of dice she got to keep, although she may also use the name “Robot” once for free. The player to her right then gets to add one word for each die that was passed to him, plus one free use of the word “and”. The sentence is then finished by the player to the left of the active player, who again gets to add one word for each die passed to him, plus one free “but”.

In the course of the game, the players also collect coins. These coins do them no good, but they can give coins to another player, and that player may add one extra word for every coin that has been given to them from then until the end of the game. As a result, the sentences that the players create will tend to grow longer over the course of the game. The coins are also a timing mechanism, since the story must be finished shortly after one player has ten or more coins, regardless of whether they are coins he has not passed to others or coins that others passed to him.

Simple Rules – Made for Anyone to Learn From

The rules are only enough to fill a pamphlet, not a 40-page book. How Happy Birthday, Robot! uses the rest of that space makes it shine; Solis has bent over backward to make learning and having fun with Happy Birthday, Robot! as easy as possible.

The text includes extensive examples, giving each rule its own illustration. Each example is also accompanied by illustrations which give a visual account of the action to help children (and adults) who are better at visual learning than they are at learning from a text. Besides this, there is also a complete example game, spread over several pages so everything that happens is explained in detail. Further, the book begins with nine stories that were created by playing HBR during playtesting to give an indication of what to expect. There are also numerous tips for using HBR in a classroom setting. Solis developed these tips with the help of Cassie Krause, a gamer and teacher who playtested HBR in her classroom.

After the extended example of play, a couple pages are devoted to variants, including how to use other sentences to begin your story and also modifications for playing HBR with special needs kids. At the back of the book there is a one-page summary of the basic game as well, which any board gamer can tell you is a boon that RPGs need to include more often.

This material adds up to a book that almost anyone can learn from. Hardcore gamers may find the hand-holding a bit much, but this product is designed so children can use it without adult supervision.

A Thing of Beauty – An Invitation to Creativity

Happy Birthday, Robot! is designed to be a pleasure for the eyes that welcomes children and charms adults. The type design is airy, guiding inexperienced readers along the line while making the book feel warm and comfortable. Normally I rail against page background graphics, but in this case I believe the unobtrusive, abstract page background is entirely appropriate.

The Kids of Happy Birthday, Robot!

The final touch, though, is Rin Aiello’s marvelous illustrations. They are geometric but organic at the same time. Warm and charming, they also do a marvelous job of conveying the mood and fun of the game. Many of the pictures are scenes from stories, while others show children playing HBR, and having a great time doing so. The kids in the illustrations are diverse, too, inviting children of all backgrounds and both genders to get in on the fun.

All of this great design is displayed on high-quality materials, too. The colours are warm and subtle, the paper is glossy and strong, and the cover is solid and durable, with a high-gloss finish. All in all, the game would fit into any child’s book collection, and doesn’t seem that out of place in a collection of roleplaying games, either.

Real Fun for Children and Adults Alike

With all the attention the creators have given to making the game comfortable for children, it may seem like adults will want to stay far away, but this is not the case. In many ways it is also a party game, similar to games like Balderdash or Pictionary, except cooperative instead of competitive. While the books focus on childlike wonder and innocence, there is nothing constraining the story’s content, beyond social decency and group agreement. A group of tipsy gamers could easily produce some tales that are decidedly not G-rated.

Nor do I think the default tone of decency and mildness has to be a bad thing for adults, even when they are not enjoying HBR with children. While I would not want all of my gaming life based on the kind of content HBR encourages, I do have an inner child who is happy to return to wide-eyed wonder now and again, and I would be surprised is this wasn’t true of most gamers, even if it may be a bit tricky to get them to let their guard down.

So there is no reason not to enjoy the pleasures Happy Birthday, Robot! has to offer. It is tightly constructed, yet only as constraining as it needs to be to give play structure and direction. For children, it offers lessons in basic counting, sentence-structure, spelling and turn taking. Adults can find a pleasant activity that lets them share their hobby with young children, or with friends who might bridle at the thought of anything more challenging than Cranium. You might even get a couple afternoon’s of gaming with your regular group as well.

Simple Premise & Simple Rules Invite You to be Creative & Have Real Fun!


  1. Hee, hee. I can hear the stories in my head, my friends would come with when the kids aren’t around. They are so bad, and I would be too, because once they start it is hard not to be bad too. The 3rd player always gets a free butt, would be the common statement when a new sentence was started. Sounds like fun for the the young at heart or the perverted of mind. Thanks for the heads up about this game.