Like every other kid during these pandemic times, Alex Butler is mired in Zoom meetings as his parents trade off child care while juggling their own jobs.
But Alex’s parents work for him, because last year, this 9-year-old Seattle entrepreneur made $1 million.
You see, when Alex was 7, he invented a card game called Taco vs Burrito that just blew up — at one point, it hit the No. 1 bestselling card game on Amazon. Last year was his first full year of sales and he grossed just under $1.1 million, $20 at a time.
How does a kid invent such a high-grossing game? “It just came to me,” Alex said. “That’s how ideas usually work. I see them in my head.” It helps that Alex comes from a family that loves playing games together.
In Taco vs Burrito, the goal is to build the most valuable meal using wacky ingredients like fresh brains, gummy bears and chocolate-covered shrimp. (Oof, tummy ache, that’s minus 3 points.)
Adults have a hard time believing that a kid made $1 million on a card game he invented, said his mom. “He has to do nothing. It just grows. I don’t even begin to understand it completely.”
Alex’s parents, Mark Butler and Leslie Pierson, formed a corporation (Hot Taco) so the money stays in the business. As the King Taco/chief creative director, Alex comes up with the games and how to play them. He holds the majority shares of the corporation, and his parents have voting rights until he’s old enough to take it over.
“He’s a pretty easy boss. He doesn’t ride me too hard,” said Pierson, who serves as the corporation’s president. (Her husband is vice president.)
These days, with people staying home because of COVID-19 (and buying games left and right), sales of Taco vs Burrito shot up 10 times what they were last year. You do the math.
Still, the Ballard family stays pretty grounded. Alex is a regular fourth grader at Whittier Elementary School.
When Taco vs Burrito started, Pierson would give Alex 1% of the sales, which was then split between savings and donations. But 1% of $1 million for a 9-year-old? These days, if Alex wants, say, $25 for an online game, he has to work for it. Alex will ask for little chores around the house, like making his bed, folding the laundry. “‘What can I do to help?’ Which seems nice, but he’s like, ‘How much is that worth?’ ” his mom said.
Alex is working on more expansion packs for Taco vs Burrito, and his second game, Bold Made, is currently on pre-order on Kickstarter, with an estimated shipping date in October. Bold Made, a collaboration between Alex and his mom, is a remake of Old Maid. Turning the sexist and boring name of that older card game on its head, Bold Made instead celebrates female role models and uses action cards to make it a game of strategy, not luck.
One of the rules Alex came up with for Bold Made is, whenever you play one of the cards, you have to say the woman’s name. Ellen Ochoa. Malala Yousafzai. Isabel Allende.
“Watching the kids saying the names of these amazing leaders, you realize that’s how it’s going to seep into their brains,” Pierson said. “‘Oh, what did she do?’ You can start the process. But also for adults it’s fun as well.”
So, aside from his own creations, what does the inventor of a $1 million-grossing game play? Here’s what Alex and his family are enjoying the most these days, described by Alex and his dad:
- Marvel Legendary from Upper Deck: “We love that it’s a collaborative game where we team up to defeat evil. It’s ideal for older kids (12+) and the expansion packs to the core game can become spendy, but we can play it over and over and never play the same way twice.”
- Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza: “Players have to chant the name of the game while flipping cards. It makes everyone a little stupid in the best possible way. It’s super easy to learn and a quick game to play. Great for all ages.”
- Boss Monster: “A compact adventure quest game, like a simpler Dungeons & Dragons experience. A good mix of strategy and luck makes game play always different. Definitely meant for older kids, thematically and complexity-wise.”
- Dice Throne: “We think the makers might have said, ‘What if you took the best bits of D&D and Yahtzee?’ when they made Dice Throne. If you can make it past the first-time learning curve, it’s easy for ages 8+ to play again and again.”
- Nine Tiles Panic: “A really tiny, really cool-looking game where each player builds a city from their nine tiles (fewest streets, most aliens, y’know, regular city planning stuff). Games go fast and should work for most ages.”