Designing tabletop games is a far more challenging undertaking than anyone first expects. There are many factors to take into account that can quickly turn a seemingly simple project into something much more complicated.
Just like writing a book, when designing a game you have to identify your audience: Who are they? What do they know? What are their biases? How will their knowledge and biases affect gameplay? How does it affect what mechanics you’ll use? How does it affect how you write the rules? Just like a good book, knowing what to leave out is often more important than knowing what to put in.
In addition to establishing your audience, you should anticipate the special needs of your target players. Are they color blind? About 8% of males and 0.5% of females have some form of color blindness. Is your target player a child? If so, you’ll have to get your game CPSIA certified. If they are in the infant to toddler range then you’ll likely need all paper components laminated with plastic for the drool factor. Are your target players older than 40? If so, make sure there is no fine print or they may have trouble seeing it. And the list goes on.
Games must also be packaged to sell. A sign of a newbie game designer is failure to take into account the retail experience when designing the game. There are many reasons why all game designers should keep this under consideration. Will the game be sold primarily in brick and mortar stores? If so, there are specific form factors that those retailers prefer. If the game will be sold at multi-lingual venues you should include multi-lingual text on the outside of the box, and multi-lingual instructions. Did you take into account that 60 to 70% of the retail price of your game will be divided between distributors and retailers? You should also research the prices of other similarly sized games of the same or related genre to make sure you are asking a reasonable price for yours.
All of these things are important, but there’s another factor that’s becoming more and more important: designing your game for the publishing process, including manufacturing, marketing, and distributing.
Traditional Game Publishing
It used to be that every game went through the same publishing and sales process. A game would be picked up by a publisher, they would print 3,000 to 5,000 copies on an offset press, and then they’d push the game out the door through their various distribution channels. If the game was successful, they’d print more copies and repeat. Virtually every game you see in your local game store from Settlers of Catan to Ticket to Ride has gone through this path.
The only variant in this formula is that some people choose to do a vanity run (self-publish). Most of these fail due to lack of distribution. There are many reasons a distributor decides against picking up a game from an indie publisher. Often, the games just aren’t very good because indie developers didn’t invest time in playtesting. Most of the time, a small publisher won’t have the means or knowledge to do the market research to see if their game is actually a niche product. And don’t forget that buyers are creatures of habit who pretty much always prefer buying a product from a name they recognize.
Regardless of whether or not you use a publisher or do a vanity run, the process for manufacturing and distributing the game remains the same. You design high-resolution artwork, print several thousand copies, and get custom game parts made and included in the box. Then, you make deals with distributors and retailers to sell your game. Your out-of-pocket expense for manufacturing and distribution can be around 90% of the retail price of your game, and you end up the proud owner of $5,000 to $50,000 worth of game inventory. If you want to make sure this doesn’t happen to you, make sure you keep your manufacturing costs in line with the retail price of the game. A good rule of thumb is that the manufacturing cost should be no more than 17% of the retail price.
The biggest benefit of this route has always been, and will always be, that you can do pretty much anything you want. You can print game components to be as large as the offset press will allow, which is usually pretty large. You can get custom plastic or wooden game parts made and included in the box. You can design custom packaging to fit any specification. The sky is really the limit.
The only strategic considerations you have to take are whether to use plastic parts or wood, and how few components you can use to keep the game playable, yet profitable. You might also think about whether to use a four color printing process, or just a one/two color process. These are the basic variables you can play with, and almost everything else is just the cost of doing business.
The Rise of Print and Play
In the mid-1990’s, with the mainstream adoption of the Internet, a new publishing process, known as print and play (PNP), was widely adopted by indie game designers. Print-and-play games are games that are published as PDFs to the web, sometimes for charge, but usually for free. It is the player’s responsibility to print the game components on a home printer, and use parts (pawns, dice, etc) from other games they already own.
Board Game Geek’s Canonical List of PNP Games
With this new medium came new design challenges. You want to make your game look good, but you also have to keep the artwork low resolution so that your target players can easily and quickly download it. You have no means of distributing parts with your game, so you have to make do with what you think your players will have on-hand. You also have to take into account that the player’s printer may only be black and white, and likely can’t print on anything larger than 8.5” x 11”.
Print and play also brings new business challenges. PNP offers virtually no opportunity to regain the cost of large production artwork, so as a game designer you have to decide whether to do it yourself, pay for professional artwork, or make friends with an artist. You also have to decide what you will charge for the game, if anything. Ask yourself if you are you doing this because you want people to play your game, or are you doing it for money? Many designers such as Scott Slomiany choose to go free and gain massive popularity, like he did with his game Pocket Civ, which has since been turned into various computer and cell phone games. Others put their print and play games up for charge and are able to make a small profit, like those on www.wargamedownloads.com. Yet others fail altogether, just like in the traditional publishing process.
Print and play has a nice advantage in that the web is a built-in distribution mechanism. There’s no need to find a distributor, because it’s relatively easy and cheap to set up a web site, although a bit more difficult and expensive to set up an e-commerce web site if you intend to sell your game. However, this also means that 100% of the profit from any sales you make go directly to you.
In this new era of print and play, savvy game publishers soon realized that they had a new means of vetting potential games. If a print-and-play game was getting a lot of attention, game publishers could strike a deal with the designer to make a production version of the game. Print and play helped level the playing field a bit by removing part of the gamble from the publishing process. The publisher gained because the game could prove its popularity first, and the game designer could gain attention with little upfront cost.
Print on Demand Emerges
Around the turn of the century a new technology emerged known as Print on Demand (POD). With this technology things like books and game mats could be printed one at a time, when the customer ordered them. At the very least it allowed you to do very short runs (10 at a time). It was no longer necessary to print thousands of copies of a game and hope that they would sell. This blew the market wide open for indie game developers, especially those developing RPGs. Companies like RPGNow.com specialize in POD books for gamers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that board and card game designers could start making use of this technology via companies like Guild of Blades (www.guildofblades.com). It turns out it’s a lot harder to make a deck of cards one at a time than a book.
Like Print and Play, this new publishing mechanism once again opened the way for designers. You could now get nearly the same quality of components that you’d get out of a traditional print run, but you didn’t have to buy 5,000 copies of a game that would only ever sell 500 copies. POD would open the market for niche games.
As a designer, designing for POD is virtually the same as designing for traditional offset printing, although your color options are now black and white or full color. You can’t do a single non-black color, and it is the same cost to print two colors as it is four. The ultimate quality you get isn’t quite as good as a large run printing, but it’s certainly good enough. The main challenge you face as a POD publisher is that your cost per game is increased by about double what a traditional run will cost per game.
Just like with an offset printing company, you must design your game to fit a printing and die template, whether that be for game boards, books, or cards. So you design your artwork, put it into a specific layout to exacting specifications, then ship it out to the POD printer.
POD printers typically print on smaller paper stock than an offset press, which opens up a new variable for printing card games. This new technology means that you’re printing 12 to 20 cards per sheet rather than 40 or more. With each piece of paper your cost goes up, so designing a deck around the printing process can save you money. If it’s a 16 card process, then make sure your deck size is a multiple of 16.
Unfortunately, POD suffers from one of the weaknesses of print and play. You aren’t going to get any game parts, unless you source them separately and add them to the box yourself. Therefore, as you design your game, you have to take into account what parts the player may have on-hand.
POD also has no built-in distribution channel. You get a few copies printed in advance, and then you have to sell them yourself to retailers, or individuals, or whomever.
Many of the bigger publishing companies have started using print on demand to make prototypes of their games, or to get small runs of their new games manufactured to test sales at trade shows. This advantage can also work for indie designers as they can get production quality copies made for playtesting, or to ship to large publishers to be added to their line-up.
Web to Print Arrives
Recently, print on demand has evolved into something new called web to print (W2P), which has completely changed the game for designers. For independent designers, W2P is pretty much the best possible scenario. There is one company which set the standard for how web to print game publishing works, The Game Crafter (www.thegamecrafter.com).
Full Disclosure: The author of this essay is one of the principal owners of The Game Crafter, LLC.
The Game Crafter’s web-to-print process provides the same print quality you get with print on demand, but your costs are a bit lower, and the process is much easier. Black and white and color printing cost the same, which enables you to design whatever works best for your game. You can choose to make one game at a time, or you can order in bulk. You also get a wide selection of parts to flesh out your game, so your target player doesn’t need to have anything on-hand. The Game Crafter also provides the flexibility of allowing you to design cards, game boards, player mats, tiles, tokens, and instructions to meet the needs of your game. When your game is ready, you can put your game up for sale right on their online store and collect royalties.
The design process for web to print is a bit easier than POD. Instead of designing all your pieces of art and then formatting them into some sort of printing/cutting template, you simply upload your artwork one piece at a time (or in bulk via FTP) and the software automatically positions your artwork in the best possible position to maximize quality and minimize production costs. You also have digital proofing tools at your disposal, so you have a good idea of what each component is going to look like before you print anything. The Game Crafter also provides a wide array of parts to choose from so you don’t need to make sacrifices when designing the mechanics of your game around the parts the players may have.
W2P also provides a built-in distribution mechanism in the form of an online store, which is not available in POD or traditional vanity publishing. It’s still your responsibility to market your game, to take it to trade shows and play it at game shops, but you don’t have to worry about warehousing and shipping, and you get paid at the end of each month for the copies you sell. Perhaps the best part is that you can still order copies at cost for yourself to take to trade shows or to play with your friends.
W2P doesn’t have the weaknesses of print and play either. W2P allows you to easily make physical prototypes during play testing. If your game becomes popular, it’s more likely to get picked up by a large publisher, because the game was never released as a free PDF, and you don’t have to try to set up your own e-commerce web site to sell it.
W2P’s only weaknesses come to light when compared to a traditional publishing print run. The cost per unit is higher so you likely won’t be able to sell your game through traditional distribution channels. Also, you have to design your components to meet the sizes and shapes that the W2P allows, which is less flexible than a traditional run. However, you have no up-front costs or warehousing, and you don’t need to find a publisher willing to pick up your game.
Making the Choice
Now that there are more ways to publish, you need to choose the publishing type that’s right for you. In doing so you’ll need to take into account the pleasures and perils that each has to offer. There’s no right or wrong answer, and you don’t even need to settle on one. Just as many video game companies publish CDs to sell in brick and mortar stores and digital copies to download from various online distributors, you too can implement more than one publishing strategy. The important thing is that you know your options up front, and design your game to fit within the constraints of your strategy.