SELF PUBLISHING 102: Board Game Discovery, Design and Development

self publishing 102

BOARD GAME DISCOVERY, DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT

Since board games are a creative product, it is essential that the game be fun if you want to achieve long-term sales and branding success.    Of course the concept of what is fun will depend entirely on what your target market is for the game.

For example:

  • Mass market or family game players will likely prefer a game that is simple to learn, easy to teach and is, simply put, “laugh out loud” fun.
  • Converted video game players will likely desire fantastic visual elements, interesting choices, and a game that is easy to learn.
  • Uber hobby tabletop gamers will most of all desire a game that provides interesting choices and very little in the way of random elements. Complexity and required thought is a bonus for these gamers!

There are also different price sensitivities to take into account when dealing with each of these potential markets.  Hobby gamers are willing to spend $59.95 and more on a game while most family gamers are absolutely not even going to look at the game at that price level.

DISCOVERY

There are 2 ways to get a functional and fun board game for you to start publishing; design it or discover it.  First, there is the discovery method, which can come from:

  • Direct submissions – people who submit a game directly to you for publishing, often in rough form (though sometimes in finished form)
  • Forum observance – just trolling forums and finding what people are talking about can often lead to the discovery of a great new game that should be published
  • Conventions – Many people attend cons with the hopes that a publisher will take up their game.  Some will rent a booth, others will come directly to your booth as a publisher with their ideas
  • Game design groups
  • Designers known personally – This one requires experience in the publishing world and getting to know designers over the years

DESIGN

Of course, you could also design the games yourself (and this is probably the most common approach outside of the larger game publishing companies).  This is an entirely different topic that has a large learning curve attached to it!

If I share or discuss my idea someone might steal my design!

Of course, you don’t want to give your board game away and it’s not uncommon for board game inventors to be fiercley secretive about their ideas.  However, there are practically zero incidences of someone “stealing” someone’s early design.

The truth is that ideas are a dime a dozen. Chances are someone else has already thought of the same thing you did anyway! As you will find out, the real work, sweat, blood, and tears of game design is in the later development stages and playtesting and that is something that can’t really be stolen. In addition, by publically discussing or testing your game you are establishing a track record that this is in fact your own game design, a further deterrent to potential idea theft.  At some point you will have to let it out anyway, and you may as well seek the advice of those in the know earlier rather than later.

What can happen more often is that mechanics or design ideas are taken from already finished games that you will find in retail. These ideas are then incorporated into new games or the mechanic is innovated in some way.

Share your design or idea as soon as you feel comfortable and are looking for feedback. Some people brainstorm an idea and share it soon after for reaction, testing the water on the idea. Others might wait until much later in the process, preferring to go further down the road before opening the design up for feedback. Others might not do it at all, working behind closed doors with developers or publishers until the game is complete. Do what works for you and you feel comfortable with but don’t be worried about someone stealing the design.

Board game consultants are often the best bet if you are truly worried about letting others in on your idea.  Their interest is in the fee they will charge you.  Because a good number of their customers will be referrals from others in the board game business a reputation for honest dealing is vital to their consultancy’s survival!

DEVELOPMENT

Now, you may be asking yourself, why do you have so many steps before you even start making a board game?  The answer is simple, we want to make sure that a game is the best possible game that it can possibly be.  That takes a large amount of time and concentrated effort.  Much of that time is devoted to the development of the board game.  Through the development process, we have the opportunity to:

  • Test different rules
  • Remove portions of the game that just don’t work
  • Add portions to the game
  • Look for ways to improve the flow of the game
  • Work towards greater player interaction with the game
  • Streamline rules and simplify rules
  • And more!

It is the development process that allows you to publish games that are easier to learn, more fun, and provide more interesting choices.  As you continue to move through the development process, you will get better and faster at it.  For a time reference, an original game designer might spend between 9 months and several years designing a game.  Once an experienced publisher starts the development process on a game, they are looking at approximately 6-8 months of efforts.

1. Write down your ideas. However you are most comfortable and whatever is easiest for you, make a point to start writing down or sketching out your idea. Make note of any ideas for the theme or mechanics you may want to use. It’s amazing how this one step of documenting your idea will start the process. Otherwise, all you are doing is daydreaming.  You might want to create a rough outline of the potential flow of the game (i.e. how do players take turns, what actions do players take, etc).

Whatever your idea or source of inspiration may be the point is to be inspired. If you have an interesting idea but aren’t inspired to work on it write it down somewhere so you don’t forget about it. Maybe that idea you had years ago for some interesting mechanic is just what you need for your current design! Work on what gets you excited and do what keeps you motivated.

Mechanics first or theme first?  You’ll see many replies to this question because there is no right answer. Some people prefer taking an idea for a mechanic and wrapping an interesting theme around it to make it come alive. Others start with a theme and try to find mechanics that best represent it. Others have an idea for a theme and mechanic at the same time. And this even varies for an individual designer from game to game.

  • Themes are the “feel” of the game, and can also be referred to as the “genre”. Games like Sorry! have a simple theme of beating your opponent around the board, while complex war games have the theme of large conflicts and strategy.
  • Mechanics are the fundamental ways the players interact with the game. In Monopoly, the mechanics are centered around dice-rolling, buying and selling property, and making money. In Axis & Allies, the mechanics deal mainly in moving pieces across a large, interconnected board, while using dice to resolve conflicts between players.
  • There is no right or wrong way to start designing your game.

2. Determine the age range of your players and Target Market. Knowing the age range of your potential players allows you to design the game as simple or as detailed as you wish it to be and allows you to create age-appropriate rules.

For instance, if you are designing the game for young children, you would want to create something that is simple, easy-to-understand, fun, and would promote camaraderie and learning among the children at the same time.
For adults, you could create something that is more complex, competitive and exciting.

Your target market and its size is terribly important as well.  If you are making a specialist board game, then you will need to consider how many people will be in the market for it and how you would best approach that market when you finally get to the publishing and marketing stages of your game.

3. Set your design goals. Once you have the basic ideas behind your game written down, set yourself some design goals that will help shape your game. Ask yourself what kind of experience or interesting choices you want your players to have, and what you want your game to accomplish. Consider some of the following when coming up with your goals:
  • Decide how many player the game will support. Think about if the game would be fun with just two players, or if it needs three or more.
  • Think about how long you want your average game to take. Take into account the first game that players will play, and the learning time associated with it.
  • Ask yourself how complex you want the game to be. Some people enjoy games that are incredibly complex, with thick manuals full of rules, while others enjoy quicker games with just a few basic rules. Know your target audience.
  • Consider how much of your game will based on luck and how much will be based on skill.
  • What is your target audience?
  • How big is the game in terms of components?
  • How much and what kind of interaction do you want between players?  Passive?  Confrontational?  Cooperative?
  • How much politicking do you want the players to engage in?
  • How abstract do you want the game to be?
  • What makes this game different from all the rest?

You may not have a clear answer to these questions, and they will likely change over the course of the process, but you need to start somewhere.

4. Decide how players will win. The end of the board game is one of the most crucial aspects, because the players need a goal to use as an incentive to win. Consider the different ways that the player could win, and keep these in mind as you work on the game.  Once again, this will likely change over the course of the design, but having a sense of how players win the game is important to get the rules sorted out.
5. Write out the basic rules. These WILL change during the course of your game being developed, but a rudimentary set of rules will allow you to quickly begin testing and experimenting. Keep in mind your win conditions, and make sure that the mechanics are clear.  This does not have to be a full-blown rule book, but just the most basic concepts and how they are applied;  something to allow you a way to figure out what mechanics work and what needs to be changed.

TESTING IT OUT

  1. Create a test game. Before you begin work on the actual game, create a rough test game so that you can play around with the mechanics. It doesn’t have to be pretty; you just need to be able to see if the basics work as they should. You want to make your first prototype as fast and easily as possible, knowing full well that things will change.
    • Cut out markers and pieces from card stock or index cards.
    • Use coins or poker chips as counters.
    • Draw maps or game boards on pieces of paper (see point #2)
    • Borrow pieces from other games
  2. Sketch a rough draft of your board design. This will allow you to determine whether you need to include more or less details in your final design. Depending on the theme and mechanics of your game, your board may or may not include the following elements:
    • A path. Make sure to add start and finishing places and to set out a clear direction for the character(s) to travel along. Decide whether or not to split or loop the path to add variation or extend the game time.
    • A playing field. This is the opposite of the path. Games that have a playing field do not have set paths, but instead have areas that the players can interact with depending on the mechanics of the game. Risk is one such game that uses a playing field as opposed to a path.
    • Positions on which to land. These can be designated by shapes (squares, circles, triangles) or drawn objects/locations (stepping stones, islands, clouds). Make sure that some positions redirect players, instruct them to pick up cards, or cause them to gain/lose items. When designing positions that redirect players to other locations, be careful not to create any domino effects (e.g. Go Back Two Spaces position that sends takes a player to a Move Ahead Five Spaces position).
    • Playing cards. A randomly shuffled assortment of cards adds variation to an unchanging game pathway by affecting the players in unexpected ways. A card often tells a quick story about an event that befalls a player and then changes his or her score / position / accumulated goods accordingly. Having different types of cards (ex. cards that change a player’s location, cards that change a player’s stats, cards that players can collect throughout the game to represent achievements, and/or cards that command players to do things in real life like dance, sing, do a cartwheel, draw the person to their left, etc.) will greatly increase the number of ways in which a game can unfold.
  3. Test your prototype.  Once you have all of the basic pieces assembled for your rough draft, you can start testing the game to see how it plays. Before taking it to anyone else, play it yourself by playing as each possible player. It can be difficult to strategize against yourself, but you can get through a large number of games this way and collect valuable testing information.  Be sure to play solo games numerous times!  The more, the better.
    • Always write down what works and what doesn’t each time you play and make changes as you see fit to the board and the other components as you go.
    • Try to break your game while testing it against yourself. See if it’s possible for players to always win if they do something specific, or if the rules can be broken at all.
  4. Play it with friends and family.  Once you’ve played your game solo enough that most of the kinks seem smoothed out, it’s time to take it for its first real test. Gather some friends or family and explain to them that you’d like to test the game you are working on. Let them know that it is a work in progress, and that you appreciate any and all feedback.  Friends and Family are going to be a great first playtest, but be prepared for them to not be completely honest about your game for fear of hurting your feelings.  Make sure you know that you WANT them to be as harsh as possible and not to worry about it, because without their criticism you won’t be able to make the changes needed.  At the same time, you may choose not to participate in these games after the first run through.  Let them play the game and be there to take notes and help them with any confusing rules situations.  If you need to provide help, make sure you take note of that so that you can refine the rules; not everyone that plays your game will have you there to show them the way!
    • Take extensive notes while the game is being played. Note anytime someone doesn’t seem to be having fun, or any time that the rules get confusing.
    • Pay attention to how the games end. If one player is consistently far ahead of the other players, look at how that happened. Board games are more exciting when multiple players are in close competition right to the end.
    • Do not get defensive when you start receiving criticism on your game. Criticism is essential to making sure that the game is as fun as possible for the greatest amount of people, so be polite and write everything down.
    • If possible, try to watch a group of people play without you being involved. This will help you see how a group that is entirely unfamiliar with the game approaches the rules.
  5. Test with as many different people as possible. Try to get as many different players to try your game is possible. Everyone plays games a little differently, and testing a lot with a wide variety of people can help to make sure that your game is fun for as many people as possible. The more people you get to test your game, the more opportunities you’ll have to find flaws or weak points and fix them.

Usually, offering friends/family a free night of food and drink is sufficient to get people motivated to test out your game. You can also look around for other game groups that might have other designers willing to playtest your game. In addition, attending conventions with events targeted at designers can be a great way to get expert feedback from other designers as well as potential input from publishers.

One thing is really important for playtesting: TAKE EXTENSIVE NOTES!!! Pay attention to what actions players are taking. Where are the rules causing issue? What were the final scores like and do they match your assessment of how players played? Is the experience you are observing matching your goals at all? Do players have suggestions to improve the mechanics, the graphic interface, the flow, or anything else? What worked or didn’t work? Did the game go on too long or too short? What could be done to improve it? Most importantly was it “fun” for the other players (and what do they mean by fun is also important to ask of them!).

Try to find a few playtesters that will provide honest and effective feedback and that encompass a range of playstyles. Having players with an inclination to strong politicking, or heavy optimizers, or min-maxers, or semi-unscrupulous players that always look to game the system, etc. is really important because there will be players like this too, and you need to know how your game will hold up across all these gamer types.

After spending an indeterminate amount of time play testing with people you know, once you are comfortable with the design it is time to expand your play testing to “blind” or external play testers. This means that you will be sending off your game to a group of players who are tasked with learning the game from the rules you’ve written and playing it on their own. Depending on the situation, you may be present as a silent observer, watching how the game does. More often, you won’t be present so make sure to provide your blind testers with some feedback forms or even just a list of questions to ask among themselves after the game to get your feedback. Strangers are your best play-testers, and will be the most critical of your rules.  And yes, that is a good thing!

A few things you can do to find blind play testers:

  • Post a thread in design forums describing your game, its theme, and any other key information.
  • Ask for people to review an electronic copy of your rules – you’ll often get great feedback.
  • You can make a PnP version of your game available for people to blind playtest your game, which works well if your game doesn’t have a lot of components.
  • Create multiple prototype copies that you can loan out to interested groups to playtest.
  • Look for designer conventions (i.e. Protospiel) or events at larger gaming conventions (i.e. UnPub, Designer Meetups) where you can get feedback from other designers and even publishers. This can be excellent input on your design.

Refine your test game. As your finish each playtest, take your notes and make any changes or adjustments to your board, rules, and components that you think will help playability.  Don’t be afraid to completely scrap things that did not work at all. Then, once the changes are made, do it all over again!

CREATING THE FINAL PRODUCT

  1. Gather your materials.  Once your testing process is complete and you are happy with how the game plays, you can get started on creating the final version of the game. Make a list of all the parts that your finished game will require.
    • Board games are traditionally mounted on chipboard or binder board. These provide a durable backing for your game and give it a professional feel.
    • You can use an old game board as the base if you’d rather not purchase anything.
    • Get cardstock to use as the canvas for the board.
    • Cut playing cards out of cardstock, or purchase a pack of blank cards from a hobby shop.  There are also numerous print-on-demand shops that will make custom cards for reasonable prices.
    • Punch circles out of cardstock to use as tokens and counters.
    • Cannibalize old board games for pieces you can use for your game.
  2. Illustrate your board.  Your game board is the centerpiece of your board game, so feel free to get creative with the design. Make sure that the path or playing field is clearly marked and that any instructions on the board are easy to read.
    • There is no limit to the things that you can use to decorate your board — use ready-made printouts, patterned paper, paint, markers — anything that will allow you to jazz up your board.
    • Make your board design as vibrant as possible, so as to capture and maintain the interest of your players.
  3. Create the game pieces.  You can draw the images on paper, then tape or glue them to a thick material such as cardstock. If you are making a game for family or friends, you can even use players’ photos. If you want to spend a little money, you can take your designs to a professional printer and have them printed on thick, high-quality stock.
    • To make the pieces stand, cut out a strip of cardboard that you can fold into a 3D triangle (similar to picture frame stands), then stick to the back of the piece for support.
    • Another way to make game pieces that stand is to glue craft foam to the bottom of the folded piece of paper.
    • Once again, there are several services that will sell or create your custom one-off game pieces for reasonable prices.
  4. Create any additional materials. If your game involves the use of dice or a spinner, you can just use the ones from your existing games, or create your own from cardboard and markers. To do this, you need a pin, a circle piece of cardboard, a cardboard arrow, and a marker. Stick the pin through the arrow and piece of cardboard and then draw on the results.
  5. Address the issue of Packaging.  Packaging means the total package that will (hopefully) be on the shelves of retailers in due time and involves a variety of related elements.  When considering the design and packaging options available it is a good idea to go to a large game shop and examine other ideas already available.  This may help guide you away from some of the more zany ideas that will not sit well on shelves.
    Specific areas for consideration might be:

    1.  If there are cards included in the package, do you want to have them in their own box (in which case you will be incurring additional costs) or can you have them packed loose?
    2.  Full colour printing is more expensive than black and white or single colour. What parts of the packaging really need to be printed in colour and what parts can comfortably appear in black and white?
    3. By designing particular sizes of some components (such as the board and cards for example) to suit the production processes, you can cut the wastage generated during production and thereby cut your costs.
    4. Some playing pieces are offered as standard by production companies. To manufacture unique pieces will cost extra money – do you want to make your board game specially individual or will you use standard pieces?
    5. What kind of overall appearance do you want to give? When considering the component parts, you must bear in mind that overzealous cost cutting might lead to an assortment of components that do not look quite right when presented together as a total package.
    6. What size of playing pieces, dice etc are best suited to the size of the board?
    7. What box colours will give the right impressions to potential buyers when it is sitting on the shop shelves?
    8. If you have already decided on a retail price, will the components you have included in the package give the impression of being worth the money?
    9. What sort of people will be playing and buying your board game? Will they be male or female? Will they be children or adults? Will they have a particular sort of taste or interest? Will they be from a particular sort of background? Or from a certain area?

TIPS

  • Play around with the rules.
    • For instance, rather than always moving a set number of spaces in a path game, provide the player with incentives or special tokens to move in different directions for a set time period.
    • Add game spaces that take you to other spaces or would triple your next roll.
    • Have a different end goal instead of merely landing on the “finish” space — land on the water fountain 10 times, collect all the gold pieces, etc.
    • Use a die or make cards that show which color to move to (like in Candy Land).
  • Make mini board games for on the go. You can also make game pieces with big beads ,bottle caps, and make some with polymer clay.
  • If your board game design involves straight boxes, use a ruler when laying it out on the board in order to make it look nice and neat.
  • Get the opinions and ideas of others before you finalize your game. Ask your friends, family, and think to yourself, “Is this what I want?” Remember, your friends and family will be playing with the game as well, so you want it to be appealing to them as much as possible.
  • If you make a rule booklet, make it is neat and easy for others to read.
  • You can consider designing basic and advanced rules to appeal to those who prefer a simpler or more comprehensive game play. If implemented correctly, the basic rules can help introduce a player to the game making it simpler to adapt more advanced rules later on. Adding optional rules may appeal to a player’s creativity. A game with official rules while encouraging custom rules will appeal to players’ freedom.
  • Don’t make a game that has an unclear theme, as it might confuse your players as well.
  • Don’t forget about the cover! Make it look creative and full of color depending on the theme.
  • You can use illustration board (commonly used by illustrator for drawing)

WARNINGS

  • Make sure that your game rules are fair. The point of the game is to create an enjoyable, fun and positive experience – and not spark any misunderstanding among the players. If you do spark any misunderstandings it will probably lead to a very big argument and people are not going to want to play your game ever again.
  • If you are planning to publish and sell your game design, ensure you aren’t infringing on any obvious copyrights. You may want to consider modifying or removing anything that may become a target for litigation.
  • Don’t make the rules too complicated. Keep them short and simple. Anything too complicated, even for those hardcore tabletop gamers who love complexity, will make the players lose interest quickly and can also make it harder for you to make.

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