A toymaker raised in Utah is nominated for the ‘Oscars’ of toys

Cosmic Kick the Can, a light-up variation on the classic hide-and-seek game, is nominated in the Toy of the Year Awards.

(Starlux Games) Cosmic Kick the Can lets kids play the classic yard game with an illuminated "spaceship."

Judd King attributes his Utah upbringing, in part, to his success as a toymaker.

King — a one-time Eagle Scout and former member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — said his childhood was full of “community-driven activities” and, of course, playing outside.

“There was a notion of togetherness and activity,” King said.

As an educator in Los Angeles, where King moved as a young man, he said he didn’t see that sense of community or connection in the kids he taught. He saw kids sitting next to each other, he said, communicating with other people through their screens.

“Maybe I just don’t get it, but it does feel like there’s a lack of being with each other that collective gameplay really helps drive,” King said.

King started developing toys and games to capture that sense of togetherness, starting in 2014 with Capture the Flag Redux, which launched his company, Starlux Games. The company’s latest game, Cosmic Kick the Can, was nominated this year for a Toy of the Year award — which King called the “Oscars of the toy industry” — in the “best outdoor toy” category.

Winners in 17 individual categories — determined by votes from members of The Toy Association, as well as retailers, media and online ballots — will be announced at the TOTY Awards on Sept. 29 in New York. Voting for the People’s Choice Award is open through Nov. 10, on the TOTY website. That award and the overall Toy of the Year award will be announced on Nov. 20.

Being nominated, and possibly winning the award, would help put Starlux Games on the map in a bigger way, King said, and could open doors to big retailers and international markets.

Nostalgia in a can

If you need a refresher: Kick the Can is an outdoor game, traditionally played with tin or soda cans, outside in yards or on residential streets. One person in a group of kids is “it,” while the rest of the group hides. The goal is to sneak up on the “it” kid and kick the can before being tagged.

King’s version gives players a soft, light-up “can,” or spaceship, that changes colors when it’s kicked. The illuminated target lets kids play in the dark. In line with the game’s theme, the player guarding the target is the “Intergalactic Terrestrial,” or “IT,” and must defend the spaceship from “invaders.” Players can score points by kicking the can (indicated by a change in color), and the “it” player can score points by tagging people out.

The game also adds an element of luck, which King said helps level the playing field for players of varying physical abilities. Players can choose a designated color, and score points whenever the spaceship changes to that color.

(Starlux Games) Cosmic Kick the Can lets kids play the classic yard game with an illuminated "spaceship." The game has been nominated for a Toy of the Year award.

Though King’s Utah roots help inform his business, the business itself is based in California. He incorporated in his home state for a few years early on, he said, but his home was in California and it “didn’t make sense” to register in two states.

King said that several of his employees live in Utah, he has a warehouse in West Valley City, his legal team is in Salt Lake City, and he uses West Valley-based design firm Klugonyx for product development. Plus, his family is still here, he said.

“We have a continuing connection to that region,” King said. “I’m out there all the time.”

Most of Starlux’s glowing products, illuminated by LED lights, are manufactured overseas. Games that don’t require plastic mold injection or LED lighting, like the company’s Word Treasures - A Pirate’s Adventure Game, are made in the United States, King said.

King moved to Los Angeles after high school with dreams of becoming a filmmaker. He worked in film and taught middle school and high school theater for nine years. When burnout hit, King said he “started brainstorming things I really used to love.”

He loved Capture the Flag. So, inspired by his passion and an LED ostrich egg he found at a second-hand plant store, he conceptualized his own version of the game with glowing jail markers, bracelets and orbs to illuminate the course. His first game launched on Kickstarter and quickly sold out.

From there, Starlux created glowing swordplay games, versions of hide-and-seek and Sardines, glowing treasure hunts. Many of Starlux’s games are contemporary takes on classic kid’s activities.

The goal of all of them, King said, is to encourage kids to get outside, move their bodies and have fun in each other’s company.

“Just physical interaction for its own sake,” King said, “that I felt was very present in my own upbringing.”

The transition from filmmaker to toymaker was rough at first, King said — mostly on his ego. But now, he’s embraced it. He’s kind of like the “Willy Wonka of toys,” he said, and it’s an identity he’s proud of.

King doesn’t have kids himself, but most of his employees do. He has product testers and idea generators in colleagues, their kids, regional Boy Scout troops and King’s niece and nephew.

“Our best ideas probably come from customers,” King said. The idea for the company’s Halloween horror game came from a 13-year-old girl who wanted a “Mike Myers game.”

King said he still has some youthfulness in him. “I’m basically making toys for my 8-year-old self,” he said.

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.