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SELF PUBLISHING 101 : A Tabletop Board Game Self Publishing Guide

HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN BOARD GAME
– A Self Publishing Guide –

If you are serious about getting your game out into the hands of fellow gamers and officially having it “published”, you’ll need to decide exactly how you want to proceed.

Do you want to go it alone or do you want/need help from the big guys?

There are several approaches to publishing your game and each one has its own unique set of pros and cons to consider;

Traditional Publishing

This is the traditional approach of identifying potential established publishers that are accepting submissions and that might be a good fit for your game, making a pitch, landing a contract, and working with the publisher from there to get the game printed and distributed.

Self-Publish (the focus of this guide)

Essentially, you form your own publishing company, taking on all the issues related to owning a company, accounting, paying taxes, managing artwork and graphic design, finding printers, working with distributors, and marketing – on top of that you need to make sure your game is the best it can be and will sell. It can be a lot of work doing this, and can be risky.

Publishing Partnership

Under this arrangement, a designer works with an established management team that handles most of the logistics, printing and delivering a game, and potentially crowdfunding the game if necessary. Essentially, the publication responsibilities are more evenly shared across the management team and the designer. Examples of these companies include Game Salute and Kickin’ It Games.

Print-on-Demand Publishing / Web Sales

This option is less risky but essentially amounts to finding a print-on-demand service that can produce your game in small batches (or even single unit runs) that are sold direct to end users with you getting a little cut of the revenue. You could choose to provide your game in a paid PnP format. Companies like the Game Crafter, Print-and-Play Productions, Blue Panther, and more provide services like this.

Free PnP / Web Published

This option is simply making Print-and-Play (PnP) files available, free of charge, for interested people to download and assemble their own copies of the game with their own resources. This can be a good way to go when starting out in the design world, but obviously you aren’t going to make any money off of it.  This is an option for those who just love designing games and getting them out there.  The Philanthropist game designer!

Every method of publishing your game will have both up and down sides to them.  This guide will hopefully answer the numerous questions of “how do you do that?” when it comes to self publishing your very own tabletop board game in a step-by-step process.

Some Advantages of Self Production:

  1. Some products have great potential for marketing, but are inappropriate for licensing
  2.  You “run your own ship”
  3.  You can make a lot of money (in comparison to contracting your game to a publisher). An item that you are wholesaling for $7.00 will likely provide you $3.50 per unit– that’s 10 times as much as most licenses
  4.  Niche opportunities can be lucrative and are typically avoided by major manufacturers

Some Disadvantages of Self Production:

  1. You get to pay for everything- or use O.P.M. (other peoples’ money)
  2.  If your using O.P.M.- you’ll have people to report to
  3. There’s a lot of money to risk!
  4. You’ll have a lot of responsibilities including: product development, engineering, manufacturing, importing, graphics, packaging, selling, marketing, warehousing & shipping
  5. It requires a lot of work and coordination
  6. You get to protect your own product
  7. Don’t forget about liability insurance!

So which is better; Licensing or Manufacturing your own product?

The answer might vary. It all depends on your product and you.

Some products lend themselves to both. You might produce and distribute your own product in the United States, for example, and license the rights to your product outside the US.

Another strategy is to first produce and sell your own product in an effort to “raise public awareness” hoping to later license this game at a higher than usual royalty rate to a major manufacturer.

How do you make and publish a board game?

Being the publisher of a board game is simple and straightforward.  But do not let the simplicity confuse you into thinking that it is easy.  Doing it right is a difficult task indeed.  The general workflow for publishing a board game goes something like this;

Disclaimer: This does not attempt to address any of the legal or tax ramifications of publishing board games.  Please consult the appropriate tax and legal professionals for assistance.  This is not tax or legal advice.

You’re not interested in Self Publishing?  Ok ..

Check out the article on How To Approach a Manufacturer (traditional publishing) with your Game instead!

 

SELF PUBLISHING 106: Board Game Fullfillment

FULLFILLING BOARD GAME ORDERS

After your board games are manufactured, they have to be shipped to somewhere.  If you are starting as a publisher, I don’t recommend your garage or basement.   Other than the obvious household tensions that this could cause, there are other factors to consider:

  • How will you ensure prompt delivery of games out of your warehouse all year long?
  • Will you integrate the shipping systems of FedEx, UPS, or USPS to automatically produce labels, pay for shipping, and so forth?
  • Will you have a sufficient discount from retail shipping charges when sending out a handful of packages from your garage every week?
  • Do you have existing relationships with retailers or distributors?  (Fulfillment companies do)
  • Are you prepared to send out invoices and perform collections?
  • Can you order shipping supplies in large enough quantities that you get competitive discounts?
  • Is your storage area secure?

Fulfillment is a business in and of itself.  There are large commercial operations that solely perform fulfillment services for other companies.  When done at its best it is logistically complicated and technologically intense.  It is highly recommended that any and all board game publishers utilize fulfillment services of some variety.  For example, Amazon now sells their fulfillment services to other companies on a self-serve basis.

Days of Wonder has an exclusive relationship with Alliance distribution in which Alliance handles their warehousing and fulfillment.  Steve Jackson Games has relationships where other companies ladle their fulfillment, at least one of which is PSI.  These companies sell large numbers of games, and they are not interested in performing their own fulfillment, why should you?

BACK to Self Publishing 105 : Manufacturing a Board Game

FORWARD to Self Publishing 107 : Marketing

SELF PUBLISHING 103: Licensing your Board Game Designs

LICENCING

The next thing do is license and protect the intellectual property of the game design.  This will protect your rights to the design of the game and any unique aspects of that game.  Of course, this really only applies if you have someone else doing development or production and retailing of your game.  If you’re doing everything yourself, licensing isn’t required.

There are (basically) three kinds of licensing to understand;

1. Character / image property– typically thought of as cartoons, but any image or illustration could apply. Royalty rates will vary widely, based upon demand. Toy companies often pay for exclusive rights to utilize a popular image. The dollar amount paid for the top properties can be staggering, plus, there may be many demands placed upon a licensee for performance, advertising, etc. Licensee are limited to a very narrow and specific product or product category.

2. Trademark property such as: Royalty for the top “brands”, trademarks and properties can be a staggering dollar amount for a licensee. Companies seek brand identities as they do character or images for their ability to have immediate public awareness and appeal. Companies often add a popular identity to their product instead of expending money advertising. Therefor, they need that broad consumer “reach”.

3. Product or patent properties: This probably includes any product that you have invented. These are traditionally unproven and “risky” propositions for the toy companies. Product / patent licensing is where most toy inventors are likely to be. Payment is typically based on the wholesale selling price of your item. The typical royalty percentage is 5%.

Some Advantages of Licensing:

  1. Low to no initial investment (the cost of your time and prototype)
  2. If you work with an agent, licensing usually requires no further effort on your part
  3. You can make a lot of money each quarter without doing anything
  4. You benefit from the financial backing, marketing and development efforts, and more from your licensee
  5. Spin-offs or line extensions of your product are possible- giving you a broader royalty base
  6. Toy company licensees will be aggressive in protecting your concept
  7. Worldwide opportunity without complex distribution

Some Disadvantages of Licensing:

  1. High demand for innovation- few products will be appropriate for most manufacturers
  2. Your product will likely need to be shown to numerous companies
  3. It can take a while to get a license. Eighteen months or more is not uncommon.
  4. It is also not uncommon to enter into a licensing agreement with a company to find that your concept never “goes anywhere”
  5. Auditing may be necessary to assure proper royalty payments
  6. Sometimes smaller companies “forget to pay”
  7. 5% of the wholesale price isn’t anywhere near what you can make if you self produce and market your item. An item that wholesales for say $7.00, will give you $0.35 cents per unit.
  8. Licensees may expect royalty free accounting for returns, samples, defects, shipping allowance, discounts and much more
  9. You are at the mercy of your Licensee for performance
  10. Licensee will likely change your product- a lot

CONTRACTS

Once you’ve convinced a game company to produce your game, they’re going to offer you a contract.  In this case you will probably need to get the licensing contract in place before working on the development.  A deal is a deal and there are no “standard” industry contracts.  Every licensing contract is unique.  Read contracts carefully. Look for loopholes. It never hurts to have a contract lawyer review it for you (except, of course, for the cost of the contract lawyer). Reputable companies are usually quite good about dealing with changes or clarifications that you ask for, if you explain your concerns well.

This usually means covering the following and more:

  • Royalties to be paid, often by percentage of a pool of funds.
  • Length of time of the contract.
  • That the design is indeed the original design of the designer.
  • Scope of the agreement.  Does it cover digital rights, spin-offs, expansions, different languages, and more.
  • Advances
  • Royalties
  • Royalties to be paid on sub-licensing.
  • Transferability of the rights.
  • Laws under which the contract should be held.
  • Non-disclosure
  • AND MORE!

A good contract should be designed to protect both parties in the known cases that are important to them.  While each designer is different, I know that I want:

  • Sub-license rights
  • Transfer rights
  • Ability to publish into perpetuity without contract renegotiation as long as the game is continuously in print.
  • Global rights for all languages
  • Digital rights
  • Rights to all expansions and spin-offs

Copyrights apply to the actual wording and language as written on your components and the rules, as well as the actual artwork assets and specific graphic design. Copyrights do not apply to the actual mechanics or what your game “does”, just what the actual components are from a written and artwork standpoint. Copyrights are established automatically upon creation of the work – so you don’t need to file official paper work, hire a lawyer, or mail yourself copies of your rules to be covered.

Patents apply to unique devices/products or processes but that are non-derivative – in other words they need to be purely original. Generally speaking, patents are not used by boardgame designers. They are VERY expensive and time consuming to secure and require extensive legal resources to enforce and protect. Forget about patents.

Trademarks are used to secure a brand identity for something. Publishers will generally trademark the name of their game, and depending on the intellectual properties used in the game other references might be trademarked as well. In general, designer’s don’t need to deal with this either.

Basically, if you starting out in design and you aren’t a publisher – you can more or less ignore all of the above issues. One exception to this is the use of other people’s potentially copyrighted materials in your physical prototypes. If you are using clipart or placeholder graphics, it’s best to use public domain or other assets where you have permission to use them.

ADVANCES AND ROYALTIES

Generally, you want to get some sort of non-refundable cash advance paid to you upon signing the contract. Based on who you’re dealing with, this can be anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $5000 or more.

The reason you want this is that, in many cases, the manufacturer never actually publishes the game, but sits on it until the contract expires. Without the advance, your game would have been tied up for a couple of years, with nothing to show for it.

Your advance is always taken out of your eventual royalties, so even if the company sells 1000 copies, you aren’t likely to see any money from it until you’ve earned more royalties than your advance was worth.

The royalty is best calculated as part of net sales; what is actually collected in cash, rather than the retail price. This way they can give away samples, give discounts, or sell at full retail at cons and you get a cut of the actual net sales. This is fairly standard. Most contracts are anywhere from 5-8% of net, though some have been as low as 2% and as high as 10%. How much of a royalty you are offered completely depends on the manufacturer; if they expect to market a million copies expect a lower royalty. Royalties are generally paid quarterly or semiannually.

TERMINATION DATE

Expect the contract to die at some point so that the rights revert back to you if the company isn’t continuing production.

A good idea when it comes to termination dates and renewals is to stipulate a minimum number of copies for the termination period to renew, or have a fixed termination date regardless of the number of copies sold with renewal negotiable. Some contracts will state, “if we sell XX number of copies during the period, then the contract automatically renews for X years”. Sometimes the company will just have a fixed duration contract, then contact you to renew it if the game is still selling well for them.  egardless of how it’s done, you want a termination date. One allowance you’ll often see in a contract is that if the contract is terminated, they’ll be allowed some time period to sell their existing stock.

SELLING OUT

You can, of course, opt to outright sell the rights to your game at a fixed price. There’s nothing wrong with this, but if the game does fabulously well, you’ll never see a penny of royalties. On the other hand, for an outright sale, you should expect more money than a simple advance would get you; at least double.

SUBLICENSING

Here is where a lot of weirdness can happen.

Sublicensing usually consists of one company selling the rights to print a game to another company for a fixed price, for which you get a much larger percentage, as the licenser (the company you sold your game to) isn’t actually doing any of the labor except for selling it to someone else. They’re acting as a middle-man. It’s reasonable in this case to ask for 20-40% of the sublicensing fee that they get from the licensee. Alternately, you can stipulate that in the case of sublicensing, the licensee also pays you a royalty on each copy sold, and you don’t get any of the sublicense fee at all.

BACK to Self Publishing 102: Board Game Discovery, Design and Development

FORWARD to Self Publishing 104 : Funding your Board Game

SELF PUBLISHING 107: Marketing your Board Game

THE BOARD GAME MARKET

Who buys board games? Well it depends on the kind of game of course but generally you find that they appeal more to people who are well educated and family oriented. They could be any age but most likely, they be aged between 25-44.

The market has a heavy seasonal bias towards Christmas in terms of consumer purchasing patterns. And particularly with family board games it is most likely that the housewife (if there is one in the family) will be the purchaser.

The market size for board games is tough to quantify exactly but in the US the board games and puzzles market was worth around $381 million, according to figures released in early 2001.  Since then, each and every year from 2002 to 2014 sales of board games increased between 10 and 20 percent.  We are in the Golden Age of Board Games.  A Rennaissance if you will.

Market size is often something that board games designers often dwell on, usually with optimistic hopes of taking ‘just one percent of the market’. One percent is actually extremely ambitious and it is much better to begin with the question “how much money will I be happy to make from this project” and then decide whether the market can provide you with that sort of return. If everything exceeds your expectations then so much the better, but one should not aim too high to start with.

In both the US and the UK, the majority of board games are sold via the large retail group, however a large number of the non-mainstream (ie: monopoly and scrabble type games) are available primarily through smaller Board Game and Toy or Hobby shops.

Smaller board games companies find it difficult to provide the range, margins and product support demanded by the large retailers and therefore if you are considering launching your own board game, take care to establish which retailers you will be able to distribute your board games to and whether or not they are likely to sell sufficient volume to make your enterprise profitable.  Of course, you could also go it alone, but that’s for another article.

HOW DO I MARKET MY BOARD GAME?

First of all, start by telling everyone you know about it. Tell them what it is, play it with them, and tell them where they can buy it. Start with friends, family, classmates, co-workers, and so on, as they will most likely be instantly interested your game, because they are interested in you.

Publish your game information on Board Game Geek. They have millions of users, and if you’re not already using that site, you should. You should be reviewing other games on the site, talking in their community, and maybe even purchasing ad space on their site to promote the sale of your game.

Create a page on Wikipedia.com for your business and games. Click here to see a good example of how a popular game company uses Wikipedia to their advantage! Note that Wikipedia admins often delete articles that are “not important enough”; having your article well-cited will help.

Your local game store is your friend. Most game stores will have a board game night where you can pitch your game. This works a lot like setting up in the game area at a convention, but on a smaller more intimate level. If you work with the game store in advance they may even promote you on their web site letting people know in advance to come check you out. In addition, some game stores will either buy copies of your game to sell in their store, or sell your games on consignment. They’ll do this because you’re local, so when you go in, explain that you are local.

Before beginning any marketing campaign, it is important to have specific business goals and branding desires, even if they are not easily measured.  Some example goals would be;

  • To reduce the risk of publishing by having a fan base that you can reach and count on to buy your games.
  • To have your company associated as a brand that produces great games.
  • To appeal to early adopter gamers that will jump start word of mouth marketing.

Knowing your goals, the majority of what has to be done as a marketing effort is to accomplish these goals.  It helps to shape the what, when, where, and how of the message. There are generally 3 main channels to which you want to market your games :

  • Hobby Retailers
  • Distributors
  • Consumers

MARKETING BOARD GAMES TO HOBBY RETAILERS

Retailers love:

  • Higher gross profit margins
  • No competition from online discounters
  • Promotional items
  • Advanced release
  • Demo copies

MARKETING BOARD GAMES TO DISTRIBUTERS

At least in the United States and Canada, and with the larger board game distributors, you should not count on them actively promoting or stocking your product.  If you are a new board game publisher, then you need a fulfillment company with existing distributor relationships that can get you in the door (or a really good Kickstarter project).  After that, you will need to market heavily to individuals and retailers to get them to pull your games through the distribution system.

The advantage of getting into distribution is that they have thousands of existing retailers as customers.  A certain portion of which will order your games and put them on their shelves.  Just do not count on distribution sales continuing at a good pace.  By the time your games have been flipped by the distributors, they will be moving on to the next new release.

MARKETING BOARD GAMES TO CONSUMERS

There are numerous ways to accomplish this, but there are methods that are often found to be the most valuable per unit of time.  It is suggested you should concentrate on:

  • Social Media Marketing
  • Reviews
  • Conventions

SOCIAL MEDIA

For most small or one-off publishers of games you should extensively use Board Game Geek for the marketing of your games, increasing your fan base, and so forth.  Your next most important place for social media marketing is a blog and then Twitter and Facebook.  The goal of these efforts is to build your brand, get people interacting, and a slow build of additional fans.  Don’t expect immediate results.  As with any marketing it takes time for people to get involved.

REVIEWS

There are popular board game reviewers with large audiences that can drive sales for your board games.  If you have produced an exceptional product, then there is absolutely no fear in providing review copies to some of these reviewers, free of charge to them.  If your game is good they’ll review it in their magazine, blog, newsletter, etc and drive buyers directly to your game

This is not a new or novel concept.  You should integrate this into your Social Media Marketing.  Even if people do not watch or read the review in question, they can see that it has been reviewed by a known authority on what a good game is.  That alone is worth it.

It is also important to build a good relationship with the reviewers.  Not so that their reviews of your games will be better, but rather so that they will be interested in reviewing your games at all!

CONVENTIONS

Attend local and nearby conventions.  Some ways to market your game at conventions are to :

  • Support small or regional conventions including providing game library copies and some prize table copies.
  • Exhibiting at large conventions is expensive and you will benefit from being an existing brand and having several products.  Without this, your booth will probably look empty which will give people an excuse to avoid your booth.
  • Demonstrating your new game at conventions is a far less expensive way to get people to see your game in action and build interest.  You don’t need a booth; Just register and demo your games in the board game area.
  • Bring extra copies of your game with you if you’re demoing so that you can sell them on the spot.  That way people will take the game home with them, and the word will spread even further.

HOW DO I GET A UPC FOR MY GAME?

Many game publishers wish to sell their games in retail shops, but to do so they must have a bar code on the packaging. This is actually a relatively easy process, but if you haven’t done it before, it can feel daunting.

The first step is to determine if you need a UPC (universal product code). The only reason to have it is if you plan to sell it at retailers. If you’re selling your game exclusively from our web site, your web site, or at trade shows, then don’t bother.

Second, find a provider of bar codes. You could go direct to GS1 (the administrators of UPC bar codes) and buy your bar codes, but that will cost you $750 up front and $250 per year. Instead, there are lots of internet retailers that buy bulk codes from GS1 and then resell them to you one at a time for as little as $10. Search “UPC bar code” on your favorite search engine and you’ll find plenty. Beware though, you want to make sure that the bar codes are GS1 certified, and also that they’re approved for use at major retailers.

Once you’ve purchased a bar code from a reputable seller, they will provide you with high resolution bar code images. The good places will provide you with both bitmap images (JPEG/PNG) and vector (EPS/SVG).  Download those images and keep them in a safe place that is backed up. Also make sure that you keep track of which bar code goes with which product, as you cannot reuse a bar code. Even if you have a variant of the same product (like a deluxe edition) it needs it’s own unique bar code.

Now you need to create a white space on your packaging and place the bar code in it.  Be sure to leave a white margin all the way around the bar code. Ideally that margin should be at least 0.125 inches (38 pixels). The bar code itself should not be warped in any way, and should ideally be 1.469 inches (441 pixels) wide and 1.02 inches (306 pixels) tall.

Congratulations! You now have a UPC printed on every package that is compatible with any retailer in the United States or Canada.

BACK to Self Publishing 106: Board Game Fulfillment

SELF PUBLISHING 105 : Manufacturing a Board Game

MANUFACTURING A BOARD GAME

Manufacturing is probably the biggest place that a board game self publisher can get themselves into trouble.  There are so many nuanced factors that can go wrong with the process on top of the task of finding the right manufacturer to work with!

Many game designers and small self publishers have had nightmares with their initial efforts to manufacture their games.  You could choose manufacture within the United States but have a hard time finding the right balance of quality combined with affordability.  There’s nothing worse than an absolutely stunning game with the most exquisite components being utterly unaffordable to the masses because of high production costs.  Alternatively you could try to work directly with a manufacturer in China and get great results; sometimes!  You may get a fantastic price per unit overseas but without a representative actually in the country to show a presence at the manufacturing facilities you will be plagued with unpleasant problems; from language barriers and communicating your needs to quality control and making sure everything is up to your required specifications.

If you are not doing the manufacturing yourself (which on a bulk basis would be a daunting task without the facilities to do so) you may be better off to use an existing company that works directly with the factory.

Some of the better known manufacturers that people report to have had great results with:

  • Panda Game Manufacturing
  • Grand Prix International
  • Ludo Fact
  • QPC Games
  • Whatz Games
  • WinGo Industry Ltd
  • AdMagic

To better help you understand the manufacturing process of a tabletop board game and to help you make the right choices as a self publisher (with the least amount of trouble), read on!

There are 6 main steps that you must go through to getting your board game manufactured:

  • Consultation
  • Getting Quotes
  • Choosing a Manufacturer
  • Pre-Press & Materials Checkpoint
  • Production
  • Shipping

Manufacturing Consultation

As a self-publisher, you will want to contact a manufacturer fairly early to get an idea of the viability of manufacturing your game. This should be done while still developing your board game so that you can be certain the components you have designed for the game can be properly produced. If you envision your game to contain a large number of bits or if you wish to include fancy custom components, you would be wise to check on the production costs early so you can steer game development in the appropriate direction if you need to make significant changes to the components.

The consultation phase is also a good time to get a general estimate of how long it will take to manufacture and ship your game. For a typical euro-style game with wooden and cardboard components, it takes 4-5 months from the point when you provide your files to the manufacturer until the games are physically in your warehouse.

Of course, the complexity of your game’s components as well as the “print-readiness” of your graphic files will have a huge impact on the schedule. A simple game with minimal components can be completed in under a month whereas huge monster projects may take many months to manufacture. Do not under estimate your own influence on the schedule as well. Many first time publishers will understandably make numerous late changes and revisions as they fine-tune their game.  Make sure you know exactly what you want and have it finalized before your factory starts work to keep costs and delays to a minimum.

As a general rule of thumb, it is advised new companies to try to keep their game components fairly simple for their first production. This will keep costs down and result in a faster schedule.

Getting Quotes For Game Production

After some preliminary information sharing, you will eventually be ready to get an official quote for your game. This should be done before you raise funds to ensure you raise enough capital to produce and ship your game. At the same time, this is a good step for you to ask yourself which components in the game are going to give you the best bang for your buck and which ones you could do without (or make with in a lower quality material).

Many traditional Euro games are produced with very basic components (cardboard and wooden cubes) because their main selling point is their gameplay. In the past two years (and with the success of Kickstarter-backed projects), there are more and more requests for special and custom components which can really help to make your game stand out.  Of course, with every additional and special custom component you add to your game, the cost will rise accordingly so it is up to you to determine what is the ideal mix of components to put in your game.

One factor that will have a huge impact on pricing is the total quantity of games you are looking to produce. The more games you make, the more feasible it will be to add fancier components to the box. This is because every component adds a production step to the manufacturing process. Every production step has a certain setup cost in addition to the material and labor cost. Certain components have especially high setup costs such as custom plastic components. Wooden and printed components are much cheaper than plastic and it is for this reason that most Euro games are made with only wood and printed materials. Common advise to a new game company is to print 1500 to 3000 games initially. With quantities less than this, it will be very difficult to turn a profit. If you produce too many, the games might take too long to sell.

Another important factor to consider is your target market. Understand your customers and have a marketing plan! Every game needs at least one main selling point – a fascinating theme, mesmerizing artwork, addictive gameplay, or awesome components that can capture the attention of gamers. Understanding where your game lies on the spectrum of these various measuring sticks can help you determine how much to invest in your game’s components. Some games work well as simple card games with minimal components and other have had their success multiplied by including gorgeous and thematic bits.

Lastly, create a strong company brand. Some companies are known for over-produced games whereas others may be known to release more traditional and component-light games (cardboard bits and wooden cubes). Success is found at both ends of the spectrum. It isn’t realistic for every publisher to attempt to become the next Fantasy Flight Games. Having a clear vision of what your strengths are as well as understanding your customers will steer your component decisions in the right direction.

That said, regardless of the number or complexity of components in your game, the most important issue that can derail your dream of becoming a successful publisher is ending up with a game that has quality problems. This is why the next step of choosing an appropriate manufacturer is perhaps the most important decision you can make as a new publisher.

Choosing A Game Manufacturer

There are two main places in the world to produce your game:

  • Germany
  • China

Some companies have tried to print games in other countries such as the USA with varying degrees of success but the vast majority of all board games are produced in Germany and China because they offer the best value. Way back in 2007, the landscape for board game printing was extremely polarized:

German printing was high quality but expensive whereas Chinese printing was low quality but cheap.

Since then there has been a lot of progress in improving the perception of Chinese manufacturing in gamers’ minds. If you have someone there to oversee operations on your behalf (and there are companies that will do this with your best interests in mind, for a nominal fee) then you can get high quality products at low Chinese manufacturing prices.

And you really do need high quality in all aspects of your games components.  The reality is that in today’s gaming world, low quality products are simply not accepted and news of poor quality WILL spread around the internet and damage your company brand. There are only a handful of specialized game manufacturers in the industry.

My recommendation is to do your own research, ask other publishers for their recommendations, and choose the right fit for you.

Pre-Press & Materials Checkpoint

Alright! So you’ve finally decided on signing a contract with a manufacturer who you think will be a trustworthy partner to produce your games for you.  You will be sent a payment invoice (usually 50% up front) as well as instructions on how to send your graphics files to them.

We now enter what we call the Pre-Press, Proofs & Materials Checkpoint Stage.

The pre-press team will now analyze your files to ensure that they are print-ready. Make sure you have followed the manufacturers list of file requirements to the letter to avoid any delays or extra charges.

Publishers who work with experienced board game graphic designers have very few file adjustments required before considering the files print-ready. If you are using a designer with very little experience (or if you are making the files yourself), be prepared for the possibility of a long and tedious pre-press phase that would involve multiple rounds of file revisions.

If time is a concern for you, I strongly advise you to use an experienced graphic designer.

During the pre-press phase the manufacturer will typically initiate the production of sample components. Wood and pre-made components can be ordered quickly whereas plastic components will take longer (4 – 5 weeks just to make a mould).

Once the pre-press phase is completed, your manufacturer will (or should) send you a Proofs & Materials Package which will typically contain the following:

  • Full Color Proofs – used for you to approve the colors. The colors in these proofs will be closest to the appearance of colors in the final retail product. However, certain finishes such as matte finishes and linen embossing can affect the way colors show up (based on the way light reflects off the surface).
  • Blueline / Digital Proofs – These proofs are printed for you to do one last check of the text, icons, and any other content in your games. These are made in addition to the full colors proofs because they sometimes don’t make a full color proof of every single component. Redundant card backs, text pages in rulebooks, and other components that don’t require accurate color matching don’t require full color proofs so they will often create blueline/digital proofs instead.
  • Mock Up of Printed Components – This will be a game that is created either without any printing at all, or with draft-quality printed components. The purpose of this is for you to see and feel the game materials. At this point, hopefully you can confirm that all the components fit nicely in the box and that you also approve of the thickness and feel of all the materials in the game (cards, punchboards, game boards, player mats, and so on).
  • Sample Components – Any components that you ordered will be included with this package so you should see an exact sample of any wood, dice, plastic, or pre-made bits.

After receiving the package, this is your last chance to make any changes to your game before they start the machines. Once they get your approval, the full production process is started and there is no turning back.

Board Game Production

From the perspective of a publisher, the production phase is the most “hands off” phase. Once the manufacturers are given the green light, it is usually just a matter of waiting (approximately) 45 – 60 days until the games are completed.

Of course, from the perspective of a manufacturer, this is where most of the work gets done as they begin the process of turning digital files and component specifications into playable games!

Every game is different and the manufacturing process involves many detailed steps but here is an overview of the production of a typical Euro-style game with printed components, wooden bits, and custom dice:

  • All art files are converted to physical printing plates. Each image is broken down into 4 distinct colors: CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) and a separate plate is actually made for each of these 4 color processes.
  • Components are printed one type at a time. Usually, components that require the most labor will be printed first and simpler components will be printed later so that work can be done on some components while other components are still in the printing stage.
  • Die cutting templates are set up for all printed components by a computer-aided machine
  • Cardboard used for the game board and punch boards are machine-pressed to achieve a very flat result.
  • Game boards, punchboards, and boxes are constructed using printed materials and cardboard. Afterwards, various types of finishes are applied to the components based on customer specifications.
  • The moisture content of all printed components is then measured before placed in a climate control room where components are dried to appropriate levels so that they will not warp after purchase.
  • Wooden components such as meeples are carved out of larger pieces of wood which are specially conditioned to be used in board games (to avoid mould). Then, these meeples are put into a painting machine before a final finish is applied. The wooden components are then dried and slowly tumbled (so the paint does not stick together) before being packaged and sent to our final assembly factory.
  • Dice moulds are created for custom engraved dice. Acrylic or resin material (essentially hard plastic-like substances) are injected into the moulds to create the dice. The dice faces are then painted in the appropriate colors, finished, then polished.
  • All incoming components are required to be put through quality control tests at the source factory and a test report is provided to us. Once we receive the components, we do a spot check to verify the test results. If the components pass the check, we continue with the production process. If not, the components are sent back to the original factory for reworking.
  • On the final assembly line, all of the components are sorted and put into the games in the specific order that has been instructed. Games are then shrink wrapped, placed into master cartons, and loaded onto shipping pallets.

The very first game that is assembled will often be express air shipped to you for your approval.  This is called an advance copy and some publishers ask for multiple advance copies so they can forward them to reviewers and other industry folks.

This is essentially the moment of truth and it carries some emotional significance as you might imagine. The day a client receives the advance copies is almost always the happiest day of the entire process. After getting final approval, the manufacturer will continue to finish the assembly phase and begin to proceed with the final shipping arrangements.

Shipping Board Games

The standard method of shipping from China to the USA or Canada is by ocean shipped containers. The most cost-effective way to ship a game is to book an entire container. For customers who will not order enough games to fill an entire container, it is recommended that they produce a quantity of games that will take up exactly half a container. This way, there is a chance that shipments can be combined with other customers who happen to have their orders completed at the same time and are shipping to the same country.

Ocean shipping from port to port takes 3 weeks on average. In addition, you need to factor in potentially another 2 weeks to clear customs and truck the games from port to your warehouse. In the event that your order gets flagged for a random customs inspection, it can add another week or so of waiting.

There can be a number of surprises regarding ocean freight that travels from China to the United States.  Here are the important things to consider:

  • Get somebody experienced (start with your manufacturer) to deal with booking the shipments and customs.
  • Customs delays can easily be 2-4 weeks.
  • You should budget a cost of at least $1 additional per game for transportation to your warehouse.
  • Shipping will take at least 1 month, sometimes more, rarely less.

Fuel prices, exchange rates, and demand can heavily influence shipping rates.

After the games arrive in your warehouse (or garage or basement .. or living room (lord help you with your spouse) in some cases), the manufacturers obligation is complete and now it is up to you to sell your games.  Hopefully their hard work plays a big part in the success of your game and you will have many more reprints and future projects to discuss!

Manufacturing Board Games – In Closing

The tabletop board gaming industry is going through a very exciting transformation. Small startup publishers now have incredible tools and resources to fund (Kickstarter/IndieGoGo), manufacture and market (Board Game Geek, Social Media, etc) their own games.

With the barriers to self-publishing at an all-time low, a growing number of board game entrepreneurs are taking the plunge into the industry. Collectively, this injection of creativity and talent has the potential to take the tabletop gaming industry to new heights.  There is truly a feeling of togetherness amongst publishers, designers, and even manufacturers in this industry as it seems quite clear that their survival and success is linked in many ways.

If you were ever on the cusp of launching a new game company or releasing your cherished new game design, there has never been a better time than now.

BACK to Self Publishing 104 : Funding your Board Game

FORWARD to Self Publishing 106 : Board Game Fulfillment

How to Approach a Publisher to Publish your Game

HOW TO APPROACH PUBLISHERS WITH YOUR GAME DESIGN

So you have created a board game and want to get it out to the growing masses of tabletop gamers out in the wild.  How the heck do you do it?

There are several ways you can choose from to go about getting your game to print. One of those ways is to make it yoursel/self publishing. This, of course, involves high financial risk, potential disappointment, and a huge investment in your time to advertise, promote, manufacture, package and distribute your game.   This path is great if you want to start a business and be a successful entrepreneur, because a successful game can make you a lot of money.  However, it can also lead to you burning out and ending up with a massive debt if things don’t go right.  Self publishing obviously is not for everyone!

Another, potentially simpler and less risky way you can get your game out there is to have someone else do all the work, take all the risk, pay you royalties, and free up your time for the next design, playing game prototypes while drinking beer with your friends!  Oh, to dream, right?  But wait; it’s possible!  Which path you choose, of course, comes down to how much work you are willing or able to put into it and what risks you are willing to take in the realization of your game.

This article will delve into that second method.

So, you’ve decided that you want to drop the risk and financial outlay and try to get your game produced by a publisher-manufacturer. How do you proceed?

There are a lot of do’s and don’ts, so let’s get down to it.

When to pitch your ideas and how to go about it

Deciding when to start pitching your game is always tricky. First, you must realize that a game design can be endlessly tweaked, and from a certain standpoint the design is “never done.” Recognize as well that even if you think the design is “perfect” a publisher may not see it that way and will almost certainly make changes to the design of the game during their development process.

That having been said, your design is ready to begin pitching when it has gone through extensive blind playtesting and has been revised and developed to the point that you feel the game is the best it can be. In the end, it’s your call and there is no right or wrong answer.

Be prepared for rejection!

First and foremost, be prepared for rejection. Some games get rejected several times over before they end up being published. It happens. You need to have a thick skin, and pay close attention to comments made by the rejecters. They usually know their business; if they didn’t they wouldn’t be in business still!

Contact through email

One way to get in touch with a publisher is to contact them electronically.  Find publishers that accept design submissions electronically (search publisher websites or e-mail them if you must), fill out their submission requirements (usually a brief synopsis of the game, why it is unique, and list of components) and then wait for a response. If you get a positive response, they will likely ask for a prototype to test.

It can be quite difficult to properly pitch a game to a company via email, especially if you have no name in the industry. There’s a standard list of things NOT to do. Here are a few of them;

  • Don’t tell them how great your game is – They will decide this on their own when they play it.
  • Don’t state how all your relatives and friends love your game.  This is completely irrelevant. Relatives and friends are notoriously bad about giving you honest feedback.
  • Don’t be secretive about the game for fear of “theft”.  Lack of details about your game will send red flags up; it indicates you’re going to be hard to deal with, and it doesn’t get them interested.
  • Don’t bring up money.  If they are interested (after they play your prototype), they’ll typicall offer you an advance and royalty (or try to buy it outright) using their own judgement.
  • Don’t insist on an NDA (NDA = non-disclosure agreement). If you’re trying to convince a manufacturer to look at your game, you want to make it easy for them.
  • Don’t send your rules or a PDF of your game unless they ask for it.
  • Don’t discuss packaging, distribution, manufacturing or anything else.  Stick to the game itself.

Of course, there are also a list of things you absolutely must DO;

  • Be clear and precise about your concept.  Do not write a letter that tries to keep all options open (“You can change and develop this as much as you like!”)
  • Give a brief overview right away highlighting the one or two most important points that (in your opinion) set your game apart from others.
  • Explain the game in a way that they can make an informed decision.  Do this is less than a page.  Give them enough of the rules that they can imagine game play and tell them about anything unique that will sell the game.
  • Be professional. Have someone proof read your email or letter. Obey the rules of punctuation and grammar. Why do this? So the company doesn’t think they’re dealing with a moron. Include one or two pics if relevant.
  • Make your email uncluttered and accessible.  A good clean letter gives a positive first impression and keeps the readers attention.  KEEP TO THE POINT!
  • Enclose an envelope. If you send a letter (you know, those things that are on paper and go into these fancy boxes and then get delivered by someone carrying a bag!), enclose a self-addressed-stamped-envelope for a reply.
  • Include a Return Box.  If you end up sending the game to a company, include a self-addressed return box.  If you don’t it’s quite possible they won’t return your prototype to you!

Remember that when a game company makes the decision to look at your game, they’re going to read the rules and playtest it at least (maybe ONLY) once. It’s going to cost them a few hundred dollars in labor costs, if not more, just to look at your game. Obviously then, it’s not a decision they make lightly when they read your email and decide to look at your project.  Because of the costs and risks involved on the publishers side, expect rejection; game companies get a lot of submissions in a year, and unless yours really stands out somehow, it won’t make the grade.

Of course, once you’re already on a talking basis with the company, and they know you in the industry, you can email all your pitches with a high degree of trust between parties.

Direct Contact at Conventions

The direct, “in person” pitch relies on contacting publishers (after finding out if they are even accepting submissions) to arrange a face-to-face meeting at a gaming convention where you can show off your prototype and talk directly with them about your design and its merits. If they like what they see, they may ask for the prototype on the spot, or for you to send them one at a later date.

  • Timing is everything!  Don’t approach a manufacturer’s booth with your prototype when they’re busy. When they aren’t busy, ask if there’s someone you can talk to about pitching your game. Make an appointment. They might ask what the game is about before committing to this; be prepared to give a 1 minute explanation that’s interesting, otherwise they might not give you that appointment.
  • Be Prepared to Demo your game for them.  They might decide they want to play it on the spot; be ready for that. Likely they won’t play it all the way through, but they might like it enough to say, “Yeah, send that to us. We’ll look at it in more detail and if we like it, we’ll send you a contract.”
  • This is a good time to ask about what terms they generally offer. Advance plus royalties? Some companies may not pay an advance; this, unfortunately, often leads to situations where the company can sit on your game for years, then decide they don’t want to make the game after all. You get nothing, and they hold up your design for years.
  • Discuss Intellectual Property, if you must.  If you insist on having an NDA, you could mention it in your meeting. They might say they don’t do that. It’s your choice if you want to back out at that time or not. Keep in mind that they can choose to do the same.
  • Make sure your prototype looks good!  Spend a decent amount of time on your artwork; it doesn’t have to be professional, but at least make the tokens and board and cards pretty. Decent graphics add a lot to how the manufacturer views the game.

Conventions are one of the best ways to get a larger publisher interested in looking at your game. You get to meet the people you may be dealing with in person and make an impression.  It works. It’s a good way to deal with companies and get fast feedback on whether your game is publishable or not. At the same time you get to see exactly what’s selling well in the industry.

Regardless of which pitch approach you use, it can be very useful to put together a “sell sheet” for your game. This should be a brief 1-page (single side) overview of your game. The sell sheet should list the game’s vital statistics (number of players, playtime, theme, primary mechanics, etc.), a BRIEF narrative of what makes the game unique, a list of the components, a photo or two of the game, and a note about the amount of blind testing or other special feedback you’ve received.

Should I contact multiple publishers!?

Discussing your game with multiple publishers at the same time can be a messy matter; and the best practice is to be honest and upfront with your efforts at publication.

Basically, it “may” be okay to contact multiple publishers with a general letter of interest or meet with multiple publishers at a convention. However, once a single publisher has requested a prototype and they are more interested it is polite and professional let any other publishers you may be in contact with know about it and to not have multiple prototypes in review with multiple publishers. That’s a BIG no no. Publishers spend a lot of energy evaluating a game and it’s completely unprofessional to have them spend their energy looking on your design just to pull the rug out from under them and go with another publisher. Don’t do it. Ever.

How long do I wait for a response?

Publishers are busy and response times can vary enormously. If after submitting your idea initially you haven’t heard back in month or so it is usually pretty safe to follow up with an inquiry about whether they have had a chance to look at your idea, and if not what their approximate timeframe is.

If a publisher has requested a prototype, it is usually good to ask them what their timeframe for reviewing it is up front. They may say that they need a few months to review it. They may in reality need even longer. Regardless, after any specified timeframe has passed (or after a few months if no timeframe was specified) sending a courteous follow-up e-mail is perfectly acceptable to see what the status of their review is.

In any situation reviewing your design is usually not a top priority, so be patient. If you decide after an extensive period of time with no reply from a publisher to try your luck elsewhere, BE SURE to contact that publisher and let them know, preferably giving them a window of time to respond, otherwise you risk running into the situation described above where two publishers are both looking at a design and one of them is going to come away upset or insulted, quite possibly ruining your chances of ever getting a game published.  Publishers and designers talk to each other and word gets around.  Be polite!

Pitching your Design

There are some key things that publishers are looking for when evaluating a design concept. Whether you are pitching a design in person or via email, these things are important to highlight in your pirtch.

Marketability+ Audience Alignment : What is unique about your game that will make it stand out in the market? This is intrinsically woven into the need to understand the target demographic for the game and what that audience might be looking for next. You need to be able to build a case for why someone would buy your game (from an unknown designer) over a comparable established game from a successful designer. Know your market and your competition and be able to speak to it, highlighting why your game is unique and worth looking at.

Compatibility : Does your game fit in the publishers catalogue? Don’t try and pitch a cutesy abstract kids’s game to Fantasy Flight Games. Know the publisher, and the types of audiences they focus their marketing around.

Profitability : Publishing games is expensive and risky business.  A publisher may totally love your game concept and everything about it but they might decide they are not going to be able to make a profit or even break-even producing it because of component costs. Different weights/classes of games have typical selling points that the market will bear, and your components need to align with that bottom line reality. Be aware of how components are used in your game and make efforts to minimize the amount of components, particularly complex ones, that your game requires.

General Interest and Pre-Publicity : If you can point out non-biased instances where your game has already shown potential market interest or publicity that may be worth mentioning as part of your pitch. If you have feedback from designer conventions, other publishers, or known boardgame reviewers/personalities, that can be helpful for demonstrating interest. If you have made the game available as a PnP or Print-on-Demand and there are sales from that it may be worth mentioning. Keep in mind that some publishers prefer things to be kept quiet and in-house when it comes to accepting games. In those cases, an established public presence for your game may turn some publishers away, but at the same time it may make others take notice and be interested!

Almost there!

Once you have enticed a publisher with your game, pitched the design to them, sent them a prototype and they’ve decided to sign on, then you get into the fun world of contracts and negotiations.

publisher will continue to test and change the game before going to printing, maybe even things such as re-theming or changing major mechanics in the game. From their point of view they need to make a product that will sell enough that they won’t lose money. This is a fact of the business. How much or how little  you, as the designer, continue to be involved in the development process has to do with how the publisher prefers to operate and your ability to be constructively involved in the process and willingness to let go of control over your game.  Some publishers may not want the designer involved at all and others may be happy to have the designer involved provided they make meaningful contributions and don’t throw up roadblocks. Regardless of the specifics, most contracts will stipulate that the publisher has the final word on desig. If you aren’t comfortable with that, don’t sign the contract. You need to realize that in doing so you are not likely to get a different result with any other publisher. If you have faith in the publisher you are working with let go of your feelings, sign the contact and be helpful.

There are a lot of other details to contracts that need to be considered. A few things to keep in mind when negotiating a contract include:

  • How long does the publisher have to bring the game to market before the rights revert back to the designer?
  • How are rights to expansions, foreign language editions, or licenses to other publishers stipulated in the contact?
  • What about rights to spin-off products?
  • Does the designer gain any special rights or benefits (i.e. have your name on the box, be able to purchase discounted copies to gift to people, initial copies, signing bonuses/advances, etc.).

At this point it would probably be a good idea to involve a contract lawyer.  It’s going to cost you money, but you can be sure you’ll get the best contract you can and not walk away feeling you got ripped off.

** Compiled and edited from multiple sources with some original content.  This guide is not meant to provide any legal or professional advice.

SELF PUBLISHING 102: Board Game Discovery, Design and Development

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.

BACK to Self Publishing 101 : A Tabletop Boardgame Self Publishing Guide

FORWARD to Self Publishing 103 : Licensing your Board Game

SELF PUBLISHING 104 : Funding your Board Game

FUNDING YOUR BOARD GAME

As it turns out, board games are physical products that require artwork, manufacturing, shipping, and so forth.  Being able to take care of those aspects requires monetary capital, which brings in the question of funding.  There are numerous funding sources out there but we are just going to briefly explore the following:

  • Funding out of pocket
  • Funding out of profits
  • Crowdfunding

Funding Out of Pocket

This is the way that many of the established board game producers were originally started.  They most often funded everything out of savings.  It is especially important to note that every dollar that has been invested into the company should be a dollar that could be lost without materially affecting life for yourself and your family.  Of course, you would not be happy to lose the money, but if it disappeared, then you need to know you would be able to continue to pay your household bills without it.

Please, do not risk money that you need to live on to start publishing board games or any other company for that matter.

Funding Out of Profits

Once your publishing company is more established some games can be funded by the profitability of the company.  Reinvesting your profits could mean the difference between creating an enduring company instead of one that chokes itself to death on expenses.

Keep your day job!

Crowd Funding

Many, many games publishers have successfully used Kickstarter and IndieGoGo to fund numerous games and games accessory projects and they continue to do so.  Some keys to a successful crowd funding campaign are:

  • Have an existing audience to provide initial support – Work up interest on social media and board gaming forums well before you launch your crowdfunding campaign so there is initial interest already established
  • Prepare intensely for the project – Running a kickstarter campaign is a LOT of work, especially before hand, but also during and after the campaign.
  • Provide good incentives while getting supporters to actively share and promote your project. – People don’t want to give you their hard earned money for nothing!
  • Tap into existing communities to get further support. – Board Game forums are a great place to start.
  • Have a good reason to be using Kickstarter – If you have the funds to publish the game without the public money, you’d be better off doing so.  Kickstarter projects are a double edged sword; come through quickly and successfully and you will be a winner; take too long or don’t communicate properly or don’t provide exactly what was expected and the public outrage can be unbearable.

For more detailed information on running a successful crowdfunding campaign, see our CROWDFUNDING 101 : THE KEYS TO A SUCCESSFUL CAMPAIGN.

BACK to Self Publishing 103: Contracts and Licensing

FORWARD to Self Publishing 105 : Manufacturing your Board Game