All Fun and Games

Appears in the December 2023 issue.

Just in time for the holidays: gifts ideas from a quartet of local toy makers

From the 1914 invention of Tinkertoys in Evanston to the ’90s Beanie Babies craze unleashed by Oak Brook–based Ty, the Chicago area has produced plenty of popular toys over the years. Check out these local companies that offer oodles of options for both the young and young at heart.

You Bet-Cha!: High Stakes from Gray Matter Games
Gray Matter Games

Gray Matter Games

A serious case of stuck-in-the-car boredom inspired this Glen Ellyn–based game company. “On a family road trip through the Arizona desert, my wife and my mother—who are both very competitive—said, ‘Why don’t you come up with a game we can play in the car?’ ” says Joe Barron, cofounder of Gray Matter Games. “And so I came up with this name-that-tune-style trivia game, and we thought, this is fun. Maybe we should make this into a real game?” A few prototypes and a Kickstarter campaign later, Joe and his wife, Lauren, launched You Bet-Cha! in 2017, and Gray Matter Games was born. The Barrons are passionate about creating cognitively challenging games and donate a portion of profits to Alzheimer’s research.

The Game of Wolf from Gray Matter Games
Gray Matter Games

The company recently launched its ninth game, Wrong Answers Only, and plans to release two more games in 2024. Their top seller is The Game of Wolf, a strategic trivia game that was a finalist in the 2019 Mensa Mind Games Awards. Root Beer Float Challenge, on the other hand, is a family party game that will get your kids off the couch by performing physical challenges to “build” a root beer float with the provided can, straws, ping-pong ball “ice cream,” and plastic cherries.

Where to buy: Bookstore of Glen Ellyn (475 N. Main St.), Treasures (121 S. Washington St., Naperville), Moore Toys & Gadgets (107 E. Front St., Wheaton), My Special Toy Store (5137 Main St., Downers Grove), Fair Game (1015 Curtiss St., Downers Grove), and local Barnes & Noble stores. Find more at


Two kids playing with Magna-Tiles


This popular magnetic toy system carried in stores around the country is based in the southwest suburbs. It all started when Magna-Tiles founder Rudy Valenta discovered a colorful magnetic tile set called Pythagorus in Japan. “I had four small children at the time, and I contacted [Pythagorus], and they were not interested in selling in the United States,” Valenta says. And so, he bought the rights and launched Magna-Tiles out of his garage in La Grange in 1997. “As we grew, we moved to Hodgkins, Crestwood, Romeoville, and now Bolingbrook, all in search of larger space,” he says. The company now employs more than 40 people.

Valenta marketed his first sets to local daycare centers. “I would give them samples and then come back again, and they wouldn’t give them back to me, so I knew it was going to be a hit,” he says. His first retail account was My Special Toy Store in downtown Downers Grove (then called My Favorite Toy Store). “I remember putting six cases in my van and delivering them myself,” he says.

Magna-Tiles’ classic sets contain a variety of colorful shapes—including isosceles, equilateral, and right triangles—while themed sets feature glow-in-the-dark tiles, cars, and animals. The company’s latest launch is Downhill Duo, a racing-themed set with sloping road pieces that earned the 2023 Preschool Toy of the Year award from the Toy Foundation.

Where to buy: Anderson’s Bookshop Treasures, Oswald’s (88 W. Gartner Rd., Naperville), and My Special Toy Store. Find more at or try before you buy at Nichols Library and DuPage Children’s Museum in Naperville.


A baby sloth plushie by Warmies


When people first spot Warmies plush toys in a store, it’s the cuteness factor that usually draws them in, says Scott Wehrs, Warmies’ president. “But once they pick it up, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, what is this?’ ” A filling of flaxseed and dried lavender gives these sweet stuffed animals a calming weight and soothing scent, and with a quick turn in the microwave, they hold heat for 40 to 60 minutes.

Warmies were originally invented in the United Kingdom in 1995, and the company’s U.S. headquarters is in East Dundee. “I personally sold the very first Warmies for U.S. retailers in January 2007 at the Atlanta gift show,” says Wehrs, who lives in Downers Grove. “There was no heatable plush in the U.S. at the time. I would actually heat it up in a microwave and hand it to buyers as they were passing my booth, and they would immediately stop.”

Warmies’ top seller is a smiling sloth. “The second-most popular is our Golden Dog, and then we have the cutest teddy bear in the world called Marshmallow Teddy,” Wehrs says. “For holiday, we’ve got a super-cute reindeer with a little red bow on her head, and one of the most adorable snowmen you’ve ever seen.”

Where to buy: Little Barn Baby (123 S. Washington St., Naperville; 15 S. 3rd St., Geneva), the Natural Path (5006 Main St., Downers Grove), and area Kohl’s stores. Find more at


A boy playing with Squaregles


Highland Park–based toy company Squaregles evolved out of cofounder Noah Ornstein’s observations watching his eldest son play. “He would come up with super-creative scenarios combining construction toys with animal figurines and cards and balls and anything else he could find around him, but they never seemed to satiate his play desires and demands,” Ornstein says. “I started to watch at playdates, and so many things just didn’t hold children’s attention—I wanted to create a toy system that would enable each child to get lost in play.”

Squaregles building sets are all about semidirected, open-ended play for ages 5 to 12. Sets contain colorful clear frames, panels, railings, tubes, and tracks that stick together with magnets or clips so kids can build super-stable structures and scenes to play on and customize with paperboard panels that snap in and out. Characters with interchangeable heads and accessories—called the Oggs and the Erggs—add a touch of narrative and whimsy.

In development, Ornstein says it was important that Squaregles jive with other popular toys, so the components will, for example, support the weight of popular action figures and die-cast cars and also connect with other brands of magnetic building toys. “That way they don’t have to think too hard about it; it’s just natural to grab something and play,” Ornstein says.

Where to buy: Online at and


Photos: Gray Matter Games; Magna-Tiles; Warmies; Squaregles