In with the old: Is it time for traditional board game publishers to step up to the plate?

out of touchI decided a year ago to largely avoid games on Kickstarter. I had three terrible Kickstarter experiences in a row (read about those here) and, with a 0% strike rate on Kickstarter versus a 100% hit rate in terms of games from shops, I went with the sensible odds.

Now I’m not here to rain on Kickstarter (again); I’m sure at least one in 10 Kickstarter games is pretty good and if you fancy a gamble, knock yourself out. And if my best avenue to get a game of mine published was through a Kickstarter company, I wouldn’t hesitate.

What I want to talk about is the fact traditional board game publishers seem woefully off the pace in terms of getting their message out and if they don’t get with the program, they could be a few years away from trouble.

Living in a board game boom time

While non-high street board and card games are still a drop in the ocean compared to most corners of popular culture in terms of sales, this is as good as it has ever been for the hobby in many countries. The US in particular has seen a strong rise in interest, while countries such as the UK and other parts of Europe are also experiencing a growing acceptance of games.

This is most obvious in high street stores, with the likes of Target and Walmart in the US and Waterstones and WHSmiths in the UK deigning to stock the occasional game that doesn’t suck. This means everyone publishing games should be seeing some sort of rise in sales and it’s easy to see that as a sign to ‘keep on keeping on’. But when this growth curve flatlines, which it probably will, traditional board game publishers may get a shock.

Because while many traditional publishers keep doing what they’ve always done in terms of marketing, a new generation of start-ups is Kickstarting its way into the industry. And these people are tech savvy, learning as they go, and recovering from their mistakes as they move forward. So where are the new consumer battle lines being drawn?

It’s all gone quiet over there

Every time I listen to a podcast, I am bombarded with Kickstarter adverts. And, once the ads finish, I’m oft bombarded with a Kickstarter ‘preview’ or five telling me how I can go and back these games RIGHT NOW! Yup, free ads following the paid ads.

And then they bring out this episode’s ‘special’ guest – who could it be?! Reiner Knizia? Stefan Feld? Mac Gerdts? Zev from Z-Man? Eric Hautemont from Days of Wonder?! No? Oh. It’s Billy Nochops  from Our First Games speaking reverently about how he used to play D&D and how he made up a game and now he wants me to back it because, you know, what else am I going to spend my money on?

When I go to BoardGameGeek, the spiritual home of most hobby gamers, the majority of the banner ads and competitions are for Kickstarter games – and the videos section is going that way too. Twitter is awash with them, while ‘going viral’ is pretty much the Holy Grail of any Kickstarter board game project. And so it should it be – we live in the age of social networking, where one free Tweet could end up doing you more good than a $2,000 convention stand.

Kickstarter project leaders also realise their games need to be played and their voices need to be heard – especially with so many Kickstarter disasters having muddied the waters for some buyers. So again, they’re innovating – getting paid previews done, sending free games to the top video reviewers, and now increasingly putting out free print and play versions of some (or all) of their new game for anyone who wants to give it a go.

And they’re also using the spaces between the traditional June/October release windows to snap up that gamer dollar in the 10 months a year we’re largely left pining for new games to spend our hard earned cash on. And then there’s apps…

Board game publishers: bring your reputation to the party

Traditional publishers, and by association designers, seem to think it’s OK to largely ignore the new media. They tend to have a website (although good luck finding one that’s well maintained), a Facebook page (some even post on them!) and maybe a Twitter account. I can only presume they think that Spielbox, Essen, GenCon and a press release will do them just fine, thank you very much. And for now, in the boom, it probably will.

You only need to look at, say, ANY INDUSTRY to see that ignoring the internet is going to bite you in the ass long-term. Publishing was a classic, and music too, then retail – while I’m sure there are examples across the board of companies being last online and the first onto the scrap heap.

Of course some publishers are getting it right. Once the traditional release windows start coming around you won’t be able to get Stronghold Games’ Stephen Buonocore out of your headphones (and very entertaining he is too), Plaid Hat has its own podcast, while Queen Games has taken to Kickstarter like a duck to water. But they tend to be the exceptions, rather than the rule – and few get it right in all avenues.

So this is a plea to traditional publishers – start taking the internet seriously before you fall so far behind the young Kickstarter companies that you risk becoming irrelevant. Most of the best people in the industry work and design for the big publishers but you need to wake up and see that the world is moving on around you.

Get on with it already!

You are in a great position. Board game consumers, unlike many traditional retail areas, LOVE most designers and publishers. People and firms in the industry tend to have good reputations, again knocking the general retail/business trend, so there is not a popularity hump to get over – just a technological/forward thinking one.

And more importantly, board gamers want well tested, well designed, well laid out and graphically outstanding games. They want solid release schedules, games that don’t need an expansion to make them work, and that they can pop online and buy today rather than hoping to get it in 2015 in the two-day window it’s in stock. We want arbiters of quality, taking the best games they find and producing them, sending others back to the drawing board where they can be improved upon BEFORE they come out.

So what do you say, traditional publishers and designers? Is it too much to ask to bring your website up to date and get one of your employees to regularly tweet and run Facebook competitions? To get your designers on the phone with The Dice Tower, On Board Games and the rest for interviews? To get your games to the video reviewers to coincide with pre-order campaigns as Plaid Hat does? I don’t think so.

The board game design buzz

back-to-the-futureFor the past few months I’ve been working on two new card game designs; one with Matthew Dunstan and one on my own. Due to Matt having a busy schedule things have gone slowly on our follow up to Empire Engine, so I’ve mainly concentrated on my own little card game, currently titled War!Drobe.

Without going into detail, it’s a two-player combat game played with a small shared deck (20ish cards) that lasts about 20 minutes. Each player is a wizard controlling their warrior in a training battle with their opponent; with the ‘wardrobe’ idea seeing you changing the armour and weapons of both warriors as you clobber (sorry) each other.

I ended up being very lucky with Empire Engine. The game popped into my head almost fully formed, with the devil being very much in the detail (you can read about designing Empire Engine here). With War!Drobe, I haven’t been so lucky. Hopefully this will give anyone interested a glimpse into the frustrating world of game design; and remember, this is a very light card game with just a handful of components and rules!

From brain to bin; do not collect £200

  • 1.0: Each warrior has two stats (health and energy) and three card positions (armour, weapon, helm). This seemed a great idea, as it meant that while a heavy weapon could do a lot of damage it would also tire you – giving you something to think about. In a turn you’d flip two cards – one would have to go onto each warrior, replacing any old item. Then the player on turn would choose which warrior hit the other. In practice, while it worked, it wasn’t fun.Combat involved too much maths for a light game, while on the other extreme their weren’t enough decisions.
  • 1.1: I removed the energy stat and allowed players to draw three cards, discarding one. To make up for the simplicity I added more complexity to the cards; some ‘classes’ so they’d react together, while adding ‘special’ cards instead of helms to let me have a bit more fun with more one-off abilities. Again, the balance wasn’t right. The extra card info simply moved the maths, rather rather reduced it, while drawing the extra card helped a little but didn’t move far enough away from luck to judgement.
  • 1.2: More tweaking later, I removed cards that ‘did nothing’ (basically weak cards that had funny names but no real purpose) and let players draw two and choose one; then do the same again for the second item. I also reduced the health stat to shorten each game. It was definitely the best version to date, but still lacked decisions – the complexity had gone, the silliness had gone, and I wasn’t left with enough to make an interesting game out of. At this point, I almost shelved it.
  • 1.3: To try and fix the card draw, I turned to a designer staple: wooden cubes. Each player got a few cubes to spend on seeing extra cards, plus an extra cube if they finished their round with a particularly bad card. To alleviate the amount of overcomplicated cards, I added ‘arena cards’ that affected the whole play area when they came into effect. The arenas added confusion and again just moved the maths, but the cubes worked a treat, giving players another level of decision making. They also opened up the design space; what else could players spend these cubes on?

By Jove, I think he’s got it (well, something at least)

lego awesome1.4: Two weeks later, the fifth version of War!Drobe went into my bag for playtest night. Arenas were gone, but more cards had cubes – which could also be spent to heal and in some situations do damage.

A combination of simplification and card icons helped make the maths more palatable, moving more decision space to the cubes.Three players who’d played before got another bite at it, as well a someone totally new to the game. This time, universally and unbelievably, it got the thumbs up.

It’s hard to describe the buzz I had on the way home; I just sat on the bus with this massive grin on my face. Conversely, when the testing is going badly, it’s such a huge downer. You hear comedians talking about ‘dying on stage’; at least they don’t know the people that are staring blankly at them – plus they’re looking out on a sea of faces, rather than one to four of them who are also sitting at your table and it’s your round.

I’ve done creative writing courses, which are equally scary, but there’s something disposable about fiction; you’re often writing a piece each week and it’s really practice – you don’t expect them to go anywhere. Designing a game is a different animal; if it goes well and gets published, it could be something people are playing for the rest of their lives. You’re trying to make something permanent, perfecting it over time. It’s more like a novel – but one you have to keep reading to your peers out loud as they pick big holes in it.

It’s only just begun

And of course all this really means is I now have a ‘proof of concept’ in place. The positive vibes led to the next questions: what’s the format? Is there enough cards? how do you think it should be packaged? What about design – what kind of art and graphic design do I need to think about for these cards?

And even when/if I get that far, it’s time to start thinking about which publishers might be interested. How do I contact them and how/where can we meet? And if we do arrange meetings, it opens up the door for those inevitable ‘its not for us’ conversations, and the very real possibility it will be rejected by anyone and everyone – all over again! You may get through the first tier of rejections, only to be defeated by the next.

But there is a silver lining to that rejection cloud. There is a brilliant ‘print and play’ community out there always looking for new games. And who’s to say your game may not rise from there to the gaze of a publisher you’d never though of, to finally find it’s way to the shelves? Every little game can dream.

And of course another idea for a game popped into my head on the bus on the way home from playtesting, but that’s another story…

A board game designing diary: The Empire Engine

Empire Engine screengrabWhen I started getting back into the board game hobby in 2009 I had no idea how much I would fall back in love with it.

I’ve gone from owning just Blokus and Ingenius back then to having a collection of over 100 games less than five years later; from never having heard of Twilight Struggle to it now being the only game in the Top 20 (on BoardGameGeek) I haven’t played in one form or another. Quite a journey.

But just playing wasn’t enough. Oh no. I stumbled on the Playtest UK group on Meetup and from there the more local Cambridge Playtesters* – and started on my game design journey. And while I don’t think Reiner, Uwi, Friedermann and the rest have too much to worry about for now, I have now at least got my first design into a playable – even downloadable – form. The Empire Engine has left the building.

The concept

My first printed rules sheet

My first printed rules sheet and (below) playtest cards

The mainstay of the Cambridge Playtest group is Brett Gilbert*, a published game designer whose fantastic Divinare was on the recommended list for the Spiel de Jahres this year (the undisputed worldwide king of board game design award).

One evening he told us about an idea he was hatching for a website that would be full of ‘microgames’ from a whole host of designers and that we were all welcome to submit things if they fit the criteria. The games needed have no more than 18 cards, plus a few extra bits (dice, tokens etc) that players could provide easily themselves. While he didn’t intend it as one, the challenge (for me at least) had been set.

I went away and thought about the types of mechanisms I liked best in games, and how they might fit into such a limited number of cards. My first thought was worker placement (an idea I still haven’t completely given up on), but I ended up settling on the rondel mechanism so beautifully realised by Mac Gerdts.

First steps

The first playtest cards
If you’re unfamiliar with it, Gerdts’ rondel is a static wheel (drawn on the game board) that is divided into eight sections, each of which represents an action.

Each player has a single piece they place onto this wheel in the first game round, then take the appropriate action. In future turns they move their piece around the wheel  to take different actions – the catch being they can only advance up to to three spaces clockwise around the wheel without paying a penalty. As you can imagine, this makes decisions decidedly tricky as you weigh efficiency in time versus efficiency in expenditure.

This actually translated quite easily in my mind into card form; cards have four sides, so that’s two clockwise-turning ‘rondel’ cards each per player (rather than placing pieces on the cards) – which also meant two actions each per round per player; not much of a diversion, and hopefully an interesting one – especially as there wasn’t going to be a board to add a spacial element to the game.

If I worked on it being up to a four player game, this was about half (eight) of my 18 cards gone: what of the rest? I needed a way for them to be turned which emulated the difficult decisions you had to make in a Gerdt’s rondel game; and so the movement cards were born. Alongside their two rondel cards, each player would also have two movement cards – a ‘1’ and a ‘2’. Each turn they would have to place one next to each rondel, so turning one a single 90-degree turn clockwise and the other 180 degrees. This might just work…

The actions

I do love a good theme in a game and up until this point every game I’d tried to design had been theme first (and they have since too). The Empire Engine was totally mechanics first, with theme pasted on afterwards, and is the only one I’ve finished. Note to self: learn this lesson? Discuss.

I centred on a simple and proven action structure, taking three sides from the classic ‘4X’ gaming standard: expand, exploit and exterminate (I left explore out, thanks to the lack of board!). This led me to arm/attack/defend; harvest/export; and invent/salvage. I’d decided each rondel would point at a different opponent, so seven actions meant ‘attack’ could be on both rondel cards.

The actions offered themselves to a simple system; you’d either be drawing tokens/chips to represent resources you’d collected (arm, harvest, invent/salvage) or turning them into victory points (successfully attacking or exporting). This also lent itself well to three scoring types – military, export and technology – which could be totted up to decide a winner. I drew some actions on some bits of paper and headed to the pub for playtest night.

You might have something there…

Matt's version of the cards using clip art, used through most of testing

Matt’s version of the cards using clip art, used through most of testing

Putting something you’ve created in front of your peers is an extraordinarily nerve-racking experience. I’ve been doing it for years with writing, so that’s water off a duck’s back now; I’m much newer to game design.

But the Cambridge playtest guys are a supportive yet critical and thoughtful bunch; the perfect combination, really. It’s usual to find the post-game conversation going on miles longer than the playtest itself.

The other Cambridge Playtest organiser* is Matthew Dunstan. Back then he was a prolific yet unpublished designer; now he’s the man behind Days of Wonder’s 2013 release, Relic Runners. Luckily I talked him into co-designing this game before the fame, loose women, and custom meeples went to his head. He could see the design had promise and I was eager to enlist the help of someone who had been down the design path many times.

It’s hard to quantify what Matt brought to the process without it sounding a bit trivial, which it was anything but. What I had was an idea that worked on paper, just; what Matt had was an analytical/numerical brain, experience, patience and an eye for gaming detail that were beyond me. Between us, following his lead, we started to refine my ideas into a better game.

The nitty gritty

A few early attempts at playtest cards featuring Seb's background image

A few early attempts at playtest cards featuring Seb’s background image

Over the following six months we tinkered and tinkered and tinkered some more. Luckily much of the initial game fell straight into place: the very first game document simply read: “Arm: Gain 2 soldiers, Produce gain 2 goods, Invent increase tech level by 1, Export ship all goods to score pile, Attack (use 1 soldier), destroy a good).”

But the devil was most definitely in the detail and for a while this was amazingly frustrating for me; I’d had no idea you could be so close to being happy with something, but have so much trouble putting the damned thing in the can! One action in particular (that ended up as ‘Salvage’) changed pretty much every time we played. Or what seemed like a great idea on the way to test night actually broke the whole of the rest of the game, rather than fixing a small issue.

Moving actions between the rondels until we had the right combination was critical and took a lot of tries to get right (something Matt nailed), balancing the risk/reward of some of the harder actions and trying to stop an obviously more powerful combination emerging.

Timing was also a big concern, as I wanted as much of the play as possible to be simultaneous once cards were revealed. This for me was very important as I think it adds that element of ‘poker face’ to the game, which I enjoy watching most when others play. And a key part of this was hidden information – in what order would action choices be revealed, and how much could players either side of you deduce from this? Luckily Catan-style timing (used in setup for initial placement of settlements) fitted perfectly, but took a long while to get into the thought process.

Fairness was also crucial, as we needed players to feel all mistakes were equally cruelly punished! For example initially you failed an attack action if you had no soldier, but if you tried to do an export action and had no goods you gained a good – which left an attacker feeling pretty hard done by in comparison.

The other big challenge was the scoring system; something I don’t think I’ll ever be totally happy with (I expect for every game design there is something, but sooner or later you have to let go!). I think in the end we at least reasonably balanced the likelihood of gaining each type of scoring cube – and the hidden scoring really helps the game zip along.

The finished product

Sleeved versions of the final cards available (free to download) from Good Little Games

Sleeved versions of the final cards available (free to download) from Good Little Games

Once I was sure we would be definitely be finishing the game (at some point), I asked a talented artist friend (Seb Antoniou) if he might be interested in helping out with a few images – although I couldn’t pay him. Just what a struggling artist with a young family wants to hear…

In terms of theme, stream punk had been obvious. Conflict, cards working as gears/cogs – it simply made sense (I came up with the name as a riff on Gibson & Sterling’s ‘The Difference Engine’ – which I really need to get round to reading). Luckily it was a genre comic fan Seb loved, which made his decision easier – plus the fact he only had to design one image (although he also did a brilliant job on the icons)!

There is of course scope for more art (I’d love an image per player, for example), but one background image was the only real necessity. After a little to and fro, it was done (Brett did the final layout, which made a massive difference).

I’d written a blog post previously entitled ‘Am I a board game designer?‘ in which I concluded that the answer was ‘no’ – something I’m still convinced is true today. But when the game went live on Brett’s Good Little Games website – and then on BoardGameGeek, the whole debate did start up in my mind again. I still feel a proper published game or two is the criteria, but I do get a (sad and pathetic I know) warm glow when I see the ‘Game Designer’ logo under my BGG avatar.

The final score

I’m immensely chuffed to have gotten this far with a game design; even one as small as this. It has been a totally absorbing experience and although it’s on a very small scale it does give me a pretty strong sense of achievement. I’ll certainly continue to tinker with game ideas and hopefully one day something bigger, brighter will hit the table and again go beyond the initial idea and rules write up.

I’m not sure if this is the end of the road for The Empire Engine, or the mechanism of the cards as rondels. I certainly think we’ll tout the game to some publishers and after a break I’m going to think about extending the idea to a bigger format, including a board for that spatial element. But if it never gets beyond Good Little Games I’ll still be more than happy with what we’ve achieved.

*Note: The Cambridge Playtest MeetUp Group

I’ve only mentioned Brett and Matt by name here because it was Brett’s idea/website and Matt is the game’s co-designer. But the playtesting and insightful input, as well as banter and general camaraderie, of the rest of the group can’t be overemphasised. We’re lucky to also have the Terror Bull Games (War on Terror, Crunch) guys along regularly too.

Am I a board game designer?

divinare

Brett Gilbert’s ‘Divinare’

Last night at our regular board game prototype/playtest Meetup, a guy Richard I hadn’t previously met asked quite innocently if I was a game designer.

It’s not the first time this has happened at the group, but the response is always the same; I stumble over my words and fudge an “I dabble, but erm not really” kind of answer.

Interestingly, the same guy runs a creative writing Meetup group and when asked if I write, the answer was an unequivocal “yes”. It’s what I do for a living, after all. But even if I didn’t, I think my previous incarnations as fanzine writer, college paper contributor and blogger would still make me feel qualified to answer in the affirmative.

I’ve been attending the group for some time now and I think some of the suggestions I’ve made for other people’s games have been useful, so I certainly feel I’m contributing. But even as a game I’ve been working on (The Empire Engine) nears completion this, “Am I a game designer?” question continues to be problematic. Quite simply, if I answered yes, I’d feel like a fraud.

Earning the right?

The ‘Game Designer’ tag over at BoardGameGeek is certainly part of the problem. Because of the way the system works, it means the likes of Reiner Knizia (and his eight gazillion published games, some of which you can get in WH Smiths) has the same ‘designer’ status as Bob from Texas who self-published three copies of his ‘Noughts and Crosses Made Easy’ variant; the only difference being Bob would probably list himself as a ‘Game Publisher’ too.

The BGG ‘designer’ functionality itself is great and I’ve found it very useful to track down games by designers I’ve liked. But the fact anyone can put their game up on the site and become a designer does muddy the water and I’m a little loath to become part of that, especially if I’m part of the problem on the faux designer side.

On the other hand The Empire Engine is turning into something I’m proud of, so why shouldn’t I hang up a little bunting if it gets out of the door – even if it’s just to a ‘print and play’ website (which was always the intention anyway; and it’s looking like being a bloody good website too)?

Is that a flash in your pan, sir?

war-on-terror-boardgame

Terror Bull Games’ ‘War on Terror: The Boardgame’

Another part of the problem is the other games I’ve tried to put together to date. Even after quite a bit of work they have without exception been flawed, flaky and generally funny looking – but worst of all derivative.

They say everyone has a novel in them; maybe everyone has a game too – but does it make you a game designer?

I’m blessed with a very strong playtest group, especially for a place as small as Cambridge (although as a city it clearly has more than its fair share of large, fizzing brains). Designer Brett Gilbert has been practically buried by the praise he has received for last year’s Divinare, while Andrew and Tom from Terror Bull Games gave us both ‘War on Terror’ and ‘Crunch’.

Matt Dunstan (my co-conspirator on The Empire Engine) is on the verge of his own triumph, while both he and Brett have also shown well in a variety of national board game design competitions. And that’s before mentioning occasional visitors such as Jonathan Warren (creator of the highly regarded, and rightly so, Inspector Moss: House Arrest) and Alex Churchill, whose ‘Space Dogsbody’ game really deserves a publisher.

When these guys are all around I have a great time and feel privileged to see and experience their designs as they slowly come to fruition (or sometimes crash and burn). And of course there are others who attend, regularly or not, who are also bringing along ingenious and interesting idea and designs. I feel part of the group, for sure, but do I feel like a game designer? Not really, no.

Stop fishing for sympathy/compliments, you old windbag

I’m acutely aware this could start to read as a desperate cry for a hug from mumsywumsy; believe me, that’s not my intention. And I’m also aware that, in the great scheme of things (or indeed any scheme of things), this isn’t one of life’s great unanswered questions. However, I’d be fascinated to hear any opinions you may have (not on me, on the topic!).

When I picture a game designer I see someone published, or as at least recognised by the industry/their peers in some way (perhaps a competition win, or high placing). What I certainly don’t see right now is me.

Maybe when I see our game up there on the website, or read the first trashing review of The Empire Engine, I’ll feel differently; or if I start to feel a second game I’m working on is going to come to something. Perhaps we can enter this game into a few competitions as well and see how it compares to its rivals.

But for now,  the next time someone asks I’ll be able to look them squarely in the eye and say, without a stammer or stutter, that no, I’m not a game designer – and that’s fine.