Some haphazard advice for fledgling game designers

December 29, 2015

main1 I received an email the other day from someone asking for some advice on what all is involved in turning a board game idea into a real and actual thing that people will play and enjoy. It's not the first email I've received concerning such things, and I'm pretty sure it won't be the last. And I don't say that to be an arrogant dick. I'm just saying that being a board game designer is a pretty great job, and I appear to be doing moderately well at it, so people want to know what that's all about. It's cool that I get emails like this. Except that I ended up spending an hour writing out a detailed response to his questions. An hour is kind of a long time to spend on one email, but then I figured, you know what? Why don't I turn this into a blog post? Now I don't want to step on anyone's toes. James Mathe already has an entire blog dedicated to advice for aspiring game designers, and of course pretty much everything I know about Kickstarter I learned from Jamey Stegmaier. I promise this website isn't turning into something that os already being done better somewhere else. But still, my perspective on this issue has to be worth something to someone, so here goes: The first step on your odyssey is just going to be getting a working prototype of your game made. Even if you have an idea, there is a lot of work involved in making that idea function in reality. It doesn't have to look pretty, but it should play well, and the more refined and play tested it is, the better. Ideally you'd have a group of friends willing to play test it with you - you always need eyes other than your own for this process - and if you live in a reasonably well populated area, you might want to hit up or Facebook to look for a regularly meeting board game design group. Barring that, you could always bring your games to Unpub or Protospiel conventions to get them tested. Once you've got your game to a good place, then you've got to make the big decision of whether you want to sell your game to a publisher or try and publish it yourself. full prototype

Selling to a publisher

If you want to sell it to a publisher, then this simply involves getting your prototype in front of the right person. It still doesn't have to look pretty since publishers are used to seeing past the aesthetics and often will want to re-theme the game to something that fits their brand anyway. Re-theming is just one of the ways you'll lose control in this process. The publisher will hand it off to a developer who will ideally work with you to make any changes they feel are necessary to get the game ready for market. There's always some possibility that the publisher will realize down the road that the game doesn't work for them, at which point they could sit on the rights for however long the contract is, preventing you from selling it to someone else or developing it on your own. Or they may be nice and give the rights back to you. If they do end up actually publishing the game, you'll earn some small percentage of the sales and your name will be out in the world. If the game is a big success, you might find yourself in demand to design other games, but usually selling any additional designs will be just as hard as the first time, except now you'll be more experienced with the process and have more contacts in the business. But, anyway, to get your game in front of the right publisher usually requires contacts in the first place. Barring that, designer-publisher speed dating events at conventions may be your best resource. There's usually one at every major convention, usually organized by James Mathe. Speed-dating usually favors lighter, faster games because you have a very limited time to make a pitch about your game to the publisher, but if you can refine your pitch and get your concepts across, it could work out. haven


If you decide to publish yourself, the big thing here is that you're going to need art and graphic design, and that is a lot of money that has to come out of your own pocket. We're talking thousands of dollars for both art and graphic design. You may think that you don't need a graphic designer - that you can save some money and do it all yourself. But unless you're an actual professional graphic designer, trust me - you can't. Once it looks pretty, you can release release the game as a print-and-play or a online module on Tabletop Simulator or Tabletopia. It will get played by handfuls of people, but it will not generate much revenue for you. Definitely not enough to pay for the art and graphic design and most certainly not for all the time and effort you put into it. The other option then is do a physical self-publish, most likely through Kickstarter. But, again, this is not a decision that should be made lightly, as you are committing yourself to helming a project that will make thousands of copies of a physical game and send them to people all around the world. You will need to successfully manage a Kickstarter project, which requires a lot of marketing expertise, getting physical prototypes out to reviewers, paying for advertising (probably another $1000), designing the page itself, constant interaction with your backers and pretty much losing a month of your life. After that, you'll need to find a manufacturer to make your game and send them all the files they will need to do so, then find a freight company to move pallets of your game from China to wherever your distribution centers are (which you'll also have to find, of course), and then get those distribution centers to get all the games to the right people. Even after that, you'll have to constantly field emails about missing components (because factories always screw up) and personally get those out to people in a timely manner. Now, ideally, if you've planned well, your Kickstarter will at least compensate you for all the expenses you'll incur (I forgot to mention budgeting, but, yeah, there's a lot of that, too), but you likely still won't see much profits, especially considering all the time and effort you put into it. Profits will usually come in post-Kickstarter retail sales, so ideally you print off extra copies of the game and then sell those for a profit to distributors. Distributors don't really like dealing with tiny Kickstarter publishers, though, so you'll want to find a distribution broker, too. And then maybe after you make 3 or 4 games, you'll have enough product out in the market to actually see some income from all your hard work. So, yeah, umm, I guess it's not all fun and games. Either way it will take a lot of work and a lot of time get anywhere significant with it. Selling games to publishers can be great, but you give up a lot of control. Self-publishing can be much more rewarding, but it requires a vast amount more effort coupled with much greater financial risks. I hope this post proves helpful to people, and I'll be back next week with my aspirations for the upcoming year.

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