Our Toy Inventors Share Their 18 Top Picks for 2023
< THINKING

Our Toy Inventors Share Their 18 Top Picks for 2023

words:
Josh Finkle
visuals:
Rikki Devlin
read time:
8 minute read
published:
December
2023

There’s an entire universe of toys and games out there, and if you’ve been adulting for a while, it can be hard to know which ones are most likely to make the kids in your life light up. Fortunately, IDEO’s Play Lab is filled with toy inventors, game designers, and tech wizards for whom play is a day job.

Here is our list of faves, for everyone from the littlest kids to kids at heart. Trust us and ready to shop? Here’s where you can buy them all. (Please note that IDEO makes a commission off of affiliate links.)

Snap Ships By PlayMonster

This has been my son's most-used toy for years! Each box comes with a bunch of modular pieces you can use to build all sorts of cool ships and mechs, plus minifigures to act out story play. There are 23 sets and we have them all! Now that he's older, he spends a lot of time building LEGO, but he still plays with his Snap Ships (which are much cheaper). His younger brother also loves them and has become an expert builder!

Who will love it: Kids who love building. It says it's for ages 8+, but my 3-and 6-year-old boys love these things!

—Josh Finkle

Steam Up: A Feast of Dim Sum

Named the very best board game of the year by Barnes and Noble, Steam Up lets players spend tokens to create their own dim sum feast. I like it for the adorable props, which give players an immersive experience. Another great feature: an unpredictable spinner that players can rotate 90 degrees to change up the dim sum steamers. Want to mess with your friends? Move their streamer away. With 12 different characters that have their own unique skills and scoring, you’ll never know who is going to come out on top.—Jeremy Chen

Who will love it: Kids 8 years and up, and family and friends who want to play a board game with them.

—Jeremy Chen

The Chameleon

One of our favorites to come out of our board game research, The Chameleon is a great contest of accusations and deception, where you have to catch the Chameleon before it’s too late. The mechanics are friendly to different levels of players, and there are lots of tactics for the Chameleon to keep themselves hidden. It has the right balance of challenge, clever clue-giving, and thrilling reveal moments.

Who will love it: Teens 14+ and adults. It’s also a great pick for a game night with friends.

Takashi Wickes

Hues and Cues

This is one for the designer in your life. Players guess at an exact color out of the 480 color tiles with just one hint. Not many games vault you into heated debates about the exact hue of “Shrek green”, or “How pink is ‘salmon pink’?” A must for anyone on your list who takes color very seriously..

Who will love it: Kids 8+, families and future designers.

Takashi Wickes

Settlers of Catan

Settlers are a studio favorite for a reason—it’s a regular feature of our “game night” research sprints. Klaus Teuber’s invention has so much to teach us about game mechanics, player dynamics, and more. There are entire courses and research papers dedicated to Catan. Thanks to an ever-changing board that introduces new tactics and strategy, it remains  fresh even on frequent game nights. (And if you’re looking for a way to play remotely, there are great alternatives like Colonist and the official Catan Universe.)

Who will love it: Kids 10+, and families and friends looking for a game night classic.

—Takashi Wickes

Pikmin 4 (for Nintendo Switch)

Gardening becomes an extreme and alien sport in Pikmin 4. Grow an army of pintsized Pikmin and navigate the world from a miniature perspective as you battle bugs, furniture, and multi-tasking. Don’t be deceived by the adorable graphics or cute and calming sound design, Pikmin 4 is the kind of game you buy for your kid, then find yourself spending all night transforming a garden with your dog sidekick Oatchi.

Who will love it: Kids 10+,  and parents and siblings who want to manage everything.

Kezie Todd

Wavelength

Forget charades! Wavelength puts a new spin on cooperative guessing games, as you work together to figure out where an obtuse clue from one of your friends falls on a spectrum. Where does a hedgehog fall on the scale from round to spikey? It’s quick to learn and play, lights up a group with laughter, and has a free app version that’s a great assist for learning the rules or remote game sessions.

Who will love it: Kids 12+, and families and friends looking for a rapidfire way to make game nights easy.

—Kezie Todd

Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza

Fun for all ages, TCGCP is quick and easy to learn, with fast-paced gameplay. The illustrations are adorable and we’re always laughing by the end of a round. It’s also compact, so you can bring it along with you when you visit friends and family.

Who will love it: Kids 7+. A perfect game for families who want a quick round of fun without a lot of setup or rules.

Diana Tobey

Dixit

This board game comes with a set of beautifully-illustrated cards that inspire imaginative storytelling. During each turn, a player picks a card from their hand and comes up with a clever headline for the image. Others then look for a card in their hand that matches the headline as closely as possible while confusing other players as they try to guess which card inspired the title. You’ll be amazed at how funny, poetic, and clever your fellow players are as they compete to win! The game also has an assortment of artist-made expansion packs.

Who will love it: Kids 8+, and families that appreciate cool art, storytelling, and witty game play.

Michelle Lee

Tangrams 

A timeless puzzle that is endlessly reusable, challenging, and deeply satisfying—once you’ve cracked the right shape arrangement. A great way to up the ante: Add a competitive element by making it a timed challenge between parents and kids!

Who will love it: Kids 3+ who love art and puzzles! 

Elise Granata

Cookies Makery Sweet Treats Oven Playset

Let’s start with the simple joy of a multistep unboxing experience that feels like you’re making your own pet! It begins with kitchen play with dough, then a magical reveal, and a cute plushie that pops out of the oven warm and smelling like cinnamon buns! My nephews loved exploring how it worked and kept returning to show others. 

Who will love it: Kids 4-8

—Rikki Devlin

Shit Happens

Unsurprisingly, this is an adult party game. Players set out to organize cards from the worst thing that might ever happen to you to the least terrible. A good conversation- and laugh-starter. 

Who will love it: All adults!

—Inna Yankelovich

Tonka 6182 Mighty Excavator

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but most plastic construction trucks are terrible for sandbox play.  The wheels and mechanisms bind with sand, and they collect and return sand to your house in small doses forever after. This truck actually works really well in sand, and works beautifully as an “outside-only” toy.

Who will love it: Boys 2-5, or any kid who loves trucks and/or sandbox play.

—Adam Skaates

Blokus

We’ve loved this strategy game where you try to use up all your pieces while also walling off other players’ paths. It gets you thinking of different possibilities and lets you savor your win when your plan to capture an area works.

Who will love it: Strategy-oriented kids!

—Javier Reyna

Little Live Pets: Squirkies

These cute characters give kids multiple ways to fidget. Collect them all and discover what surprises each Squirky brings. One of the best mashups of fidgets and toys, each feature seamlessly and cleverly integrates into each animal.

Who will love it: Kids who love to fidget!

—Weishan Liao

Aerobie Sonic Bounce

Oddly-shaped rubber balls that are unexpectedly bouncy! Aerobies are fun to throw around, indoors or out. We dare you to see how high they’ll bounce. Think of them as a cooler tennis ball.

Who will love it: Kids 8+

—Weishan Liao

Planted

This is a competitive-lite board game where you buy plants and various supplies (terrariums, plant stands) to help them grow. And the more they thrive, the more points you get! There are lots of different strategies to grow your collection, and just as it is in nature, you can compete without having to actively be a jerk.

Who will love it: Kids 10+

—Jon Lung

Rat-a-tat Cat

A numbers-based card game that kids will grasp quickly while discovering satisfying strategies to win! There are a few clever interactions that we love—like being able to swap cards with someone. It’s also easy to come up with house rules (making high cards better than low ones or playing with five cards instead of four) for lots of replay value. 

Who will love it: Kids 5+

—Matt Hovde

No items found.
Josh Finkle
Design Director
Josh is a design director co-leading the IDEO Play Lab's toy invention team. With a passion for bringing ideas to life through sketching and prototyping, Josh has licensed many toys and games to companies including Mattel, Hasbro, and Spin Master.
Rikki Devlin
Designer
Rikki is a product designer with a specialty in toy invention who brings delight and play to both the product and the process. Her strengths lie in trend research and rapid idea generation, as well as actualizing concepts through sketching, multimedia, and prototyping.

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Our Toy Inventors Share Their 18 Top Picks for 2023
December 15, 2023

Our Toy Inventors Share Their 18 Top Picks for 2023

Words by Josh Finkle & Visuals by Rikki Devlin
Read Time

There’s an entire universe of toys and games out there, and if you’ve been adulting for a while, it can be hard to know which ones are most likely to make the kids in your life light up. Fortunately, IDEO’s Play Lab is filled with toy inventors, game designers, and tech wizards for whom play is a day job.

Here is our list of faves, for everyone from the littlest kids to kids at heart. Trust us and ready to shop? Here’s where you can buy them all. (Please note that IDEO makes a commission off of affiliate links.)

Snap Ships By PlayMonster

This has been my son's most-used toy for years! Each box comes with a bunch of modular pieces you can use to build all sorts of cool ships and mechs, plus minifigures to act out story play. There are 23 sets and we have them all! Now that he's older, he spends a lot of time building LEGO, but he still plays with his Snap Ships (which are much cheaper). His younger brother also loves them and has become an expert builder!

Who will love it: Kids who love building. It says it's for ages 8+, but my 3-and 6-year-old boys love these things!

—Josh Finkle

Steam Up: A Feast of Dim Sum

Named the very best board game of the year by Barnes and Noble, Steam Up lets players spend tokens to create their own dim sum feast. I like it for the adorable props, which give players an immersive experience. Another great feature: an unpredictable spinner that players can rotate 90 degrees to change up the dim sum steamers. Want to mess with your friends? Move their streamer away. With 12 different characters that have their own unique skills and scoring, you’ll never know who is going to come out on top.—Jeremy Chen

Who will love it: Kids 8 years and up, and family and friends who want to play a board game with them.

—Jeremy Chen

The Chameleon

One of our favorites to come out of our board game research, The Chameleon is a great contest of accusations and deception, where you have to catch the Chameleon before it’s too late. The mechanics are friendly to different levels of players, and there are lots of tactics for the Chameleon to keep themselves hidden. It has the right balance of challenge, clever clue-giving, and thrilling reveal moments.

Who will love it: Teens 14+ and adults. It’s also a great pick for a game night with friends.

Takashi Wickes

Hues and Cues

This is one for the designer in your life. Players guess at an exact color out of the 480 color tiles with just one hint. Not many games vault you into heated debates about the exact hue of “Shrek green”, or “How pink is ‘salmon pink’?” A must for anyone on your list who takes color very seriously..

Who will love it: Kids 8+, families and future designers.

Takashi Wickes

Settlers of Catan

Settlers are a studio favorite for a reason—it’s a regular feature of our “game night” research sprints. Klaus Teuber’s invention has so much to teach us about game mechanics, player dynamics, and more. There are entire courses and research papers dedicated to Catan. Thanks to an ever-changing board that introduces new tactics and strategy, it remains  fresh even on frequent game nights. (And if you’re looking for a way to play remotely, there are great alternatives like Colonist and the official Catan Universe.)

Who will love it: Kids 10+, and families and friends looking for a game night classic.

—Takashi Wickes

Pikmin 4 (for Nintendo Switch)

Gardening becomes an extreme and alien sport in Pikmin 4. Grow an army of pintsized Pikmin and navigate the world from a miniature perspective as you battle bugs, furniture, and multi-tasking. Don’t be deceived by the adorable graphics or cute and calming sound design, Pikmin 4 is the kind of game you buy for your kid, then find yourself spending all night transforming a garden with your dog sidekick Oatchi.

Who will love it: Kids 10+,  and parents and siblings who want to manage everything.

Kezie Todd

Wavelength

Forget charades! Wavelength puts a new spin on cooperative guessing games, as you work together to figure out where an obtuse clue from one of your friends falls on a spectrum. Where does a hedgehog fall on the scale from round to spikey? It’s quick to learn and play, lights up a group with laughter, and has a free app version that’s a great assist for learning the rules or remote game sessions.

Who will love it: Kids 12+, and families and friends looking for a rapidfire way to make game nights easy.

—Kezie Todd

Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza

Fun for all ages, TCGCP is quick and easy to learn, with fast-paced gameplay. The illustrations are adorable and we’re always laughing by the end of a round. It’s also compact, so you can bring it along with you when you visit friends and family.

Who will love it: Kids 7+. A perfect game for families who want a quick round of fun without a lot of setup or rules.

Diana Tobey

Dixit

This board game comes with a set of beautifully-illustrated cards that inspire imaginative storytelling. During each turn, a player picks a card from their hand and comes up with a clever headline for the image. Others then look for a card in their hand that matches the headline as closely as possible while confusing other players as they try to guess which card inspired the title. You’ll be amazed at how funny, poetic, and clever your fellow players are as they compete to win! The game also has an assortment of artist-made expansion packs.

Who will love it: Kids 8+, and families that appreciate cool art, storytelling, and witty game play.

Michelle Lee

Tangrams 

A timeless puzzle that is endlessly reusable, challenging, and deeply satisfying—once you’ve cracked the right shape arrangement. A great way to up the ante: Add a competitive element by making it a timed challenge between parents and kids!

Who will love it: Kids 3+ who love art and puzzles! 

Elise Granata

Cookies Makery Sweet Treats Oven Playset

Let’s start with the simple joy of a multistep unboxing experience that feels like you’re making your own pet! It begins with kitchen play with dough, then a magical reveal, and a cute plushie that pops out of the oven warm and smelling like cinnamon buns! My nephews loved exploring how it worked and kept returning to show others. 

Who will love it: Kids 4-8

—Rikki Devlin

Shit Happens

Unsurprisingly, this is an adult party game. Players set out to organize cards from the worst thing that might ever happen to you to the least terrible. A good conversation- and laugh-starter. 

Who will love it: All adults!

—Inna Yankelovich

Tonka 6182 Mighty Excavator

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but most plastic construction trucks are terrible for sandbox play.  The wheels and mechanisms bind with sand, and they collect and return sand to your house in small doses forever after. This truck actually works really well in sand, and works beautifully as an “outside-only” toy.

Who will love it: Boys 2-5, or any kid who loves trucks and/or sandbox play.

—Adam Skaates

Blokus

We’ve loved this strategy game where you try to use up all your pieces while also walling off other players’ paths. It gets you thinking of different possibilities and lets you savor your win when your plan to capture an area works.

Who will love it: Strategy-oriented kids!

—Javier Reyna

Little Live Pets: Squirkies

These cute characters give kids multiple ways to fidget. Collect them all and discover what surprises each Squirky brings. One of the best mashups of fidgets and toys, each feature seamlessly and cleverly integrates into each animal.

Who will love it: Kids who love to fidget!

—Weishan Liao

Aerobie Sonic Bounce

Oddly-shaped rubber balls that are unexpectedly bouncy! Aerobies are fun to throw around, indoors or out. We dare you to see how high they’ll bounce. Think of them as a cooler tennis ball.

Who will love it: Kids 8+

—Weishan Liao

Planted

This is a competitive-lite board game where you buy plants and various supplies (terrariums, plant stands) to help them grow. And the more they thrive, the more points you get! There are lots of different strategies to grow your collection, and just as it is in nature, you can compete without having to actively be a jerk.

Who will love it: Kids 10+

—Jon Lung

Rat-a-tat Cat

A numbers-based card game that kids will grasp quickly while discovering satisfying strategies to win! There are a few clever interactions that we love—like being able to swap cards with someone. It’s also easy to come up with house rules (making high cards better than low ones or playing with five cards instead of four) for lots of replay value. 

Who will love it: Kids 5+

—Matt Hovde

Twee iceland helvetica, yes plz kale chips etsy chillwave craft beer trust fund fixie thundercats pop-up brooklyn. Dreamcatcher cloud bread squid fingerstache bicycle rights, chicharrones cred. YOLO stumptown heirloom intelligentsia hot chicken before they sold out kinfolk twee artisan hammock copper mug retro.
Twee iceland helvetica, yes plz kale chips etsy chillwave craft beer trust fund fixie thundercats pop-up brooklyn. Dreamcatcher cloud bread squid fingerstache bicycle rights, chicharrones cred.
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Twee iceland helvetica, yes plz kale chips etsy chillwave craft beer trust fund fixie thundercats pop-up brooklyn. Dreamcatcher cloud bread squid fingerstache bicycle rights, chicharrones cred. YOLO stumptown heirloom intelligentsia hot chicken before they sold out kinfolk twee artisan hammock copper mug retro.
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Josh Finkle
Design Director

Josh is a design director co-leading the IDEO Play Lab's toy invention team. With a passion for bringing ideas to life through sketching and prototyping, Josh has licensed many toys and games to companies including Mattel, Hasbro, and Spin Master.

Rikki Devlin
Designer

Rikki is a product designer with a specialty in toy invention who brings delight and play to both the product and the process. Her strengths lie in trend research and rapid idea generation, as well as actualizing concepts through sketching, multimedia, and prototyping.

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