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Gamedevelopment

How to Become a Published Board Game Designer

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After leaving my programming job and shutting down my indie video game website, I had pretty much given up on making games. But before long, I found myself obsessed with board game development (and developers), and eventually felt I had to make my own. My first game Cards of Cthulu has been picked up by a publisher, has more than met its target on Kickstarter, and is about to start shipping. In this article, I'll explain how I got here, and offer my tips for you to do the same.

My Background

We stupid humans have a tendency to see successful people as "special". They succeeded because they were rich, famous, smart, or, good looking. This belief builds a barrier in our minds that limits our own actions. It gives us a convenient excuse of why to avoid trying something that we can potentially fail.

I had left my programming job in the video game industry after months of 100+ hour weeks took its toll on my wrists, was applying to companies who didn't wouldn't even send an automated “Thank you for applying” response, and I had just shut down my website with my own indy games because it was costing me too much.

I had pretty much given up on making games.

I'm want everyone to know that I'm not special. In fact, you are probably better equipped than I was for the challenges of making a board game. If I can get a game published, then anyone can.

Tip 1: You can accomplish some crazy things, if you just try.

Of Godzilla and Wargamers

One stressful day, I watched the original Godzilla for the first time in years. Seeing the buildings collapse made me wonder whether any good Godzilla video games had come out recently.

The first link I came across MarcoWarGamer's review of Godzilla: Kaiju Wars, which was apparently designed by some “special” guy named Martin Wallace. None of this made any sense to me, and I didn't magically fall in love with board games; I just happened to think Marco had a cool accent, and watched a few more videos.

I've since chatted with Martin Wallace, Steve Jackson, Reiner Knizia, and a number of other massive name board game designers. They all have fears, doubts and struggles too. Those conversations are actually the reason that I've decided to take a more public role. Nearly every board game designer I've emailed has been happy to share his experiences with me, and I have to live up to those standards.

Soon, board game reviews became my television. I kept watching these videos to learn about new game ideas, like traitor mechanics.

Tip 2: Reviews can teach you both mechanics and what people look for in a game. By exposing yourself to a wide range of reviewers, you can gain a broader understanding of a new field without spending too much time and money.

But even better than reviews was this strange guy named Rodney Smith, who had just posted his third Let's Play video of Mansions of Madness. I got to watch actual players enjoying a game, and how the mechanics worked at the table. (These days, you'll find Rodney on his popular YouTube channel, Watch It Played.)

Tip 3: Live plays and Let's Plays can be amazing for designer training. In addition to seeing players' reactions to specific events, you can see the mistakes they make! This will teach you how players instinctively expect the game to work, and you can use this knowledge while designing a new game to make sure that the rules are clear and intuitive.

It was around then that I decided to try making a board game myself.

My First Board Game

I set out to make a tiny game for a 24 hour competition on BoardGameGeek. Inspired by Faerie Solitaire, I decided to make a simple solitaire variant.

I didn't have rules or ideas when I began; I simply drew cards from a deck and sorted them by suit. First, I'd draw one card at time, and then I tried drawing then at a time and placing them at will. Eventually, I added some silly rules about placement. I just played with the cards to see how things felt.

Tip 4: Don't write down the rules! Early on, you want your rules to continually change for the better. Avoid anything that will get you attached to the unproven rules.

But Cards of Cthulhu first came to form when I saw an interesting board setup that looked something like this:

My brain took a detour while staring at that board:

Look how big the pile of diamonds is compared to the others... look how strong it is... look how unstoppable it is... How the heck can I fight that?!

This single thought formed the most basic rule in Cards of Cthulhu: preventing any single group from growing too strong. Now, I needed a way to fight back.

Tip 5: If you can form emotion from the mechanics alone, you've created a thematic game even before you have a theme.

Again, I didn't have any specific rules—I just started to play with things. My development was nothing more than a string of problems with the current game, and new rules to try to fix them. I tried everything until I found the mechanic that felt right:

  • Initially, I used cards from the same deck for combat... but the game too ended quickly.
  • So, I tried rolling a pair of six-sided dice... but that felt too luck-driven.
  • Yahtzee-style combat felt good... I kept that!
  • The game was too easy... so face cards became "Powerful Enemies" and now required doubles.
  • The game was too hard... so previously destroyed cards could now be spent to re-roll again.
  • Combat felt a bit too number-y and less exciting than I want ... so rolling ones on the dice now wounded you.
  • Wounds suck... so you could pay two kills to heal.

Every time I was frustrated or bored, I changed or added a rule to make it feel better. This quickly evolved the game into something that felt good to play.

Tip 6: Don't wait until the end of a play to make changes. Unlike video games, your brain can handle real-time rule changes. You'll save lots of play-testing time this way. This is still valid in multiplayer tests; if there a general consensus that something is overpowered or broken, change the rules immediately.

After only about six hours of work, I had a game that I was proud of making. The rules were solid and the experience was exciting. It didn't have a theme at this point, but that's a tiny problem.

I simply asked myself, what was I doing in the game? The answer: “pushing back against a growing enemy force.” 

This lead me to either “defending the four walls of helms deep and preventing enough monsters overtaking any wall” or “fighting the four cults to prevent them from summoning some unstoppable evil." I may not like using overdone themes, but Cthulhu would be the easier sell.

My "Amazing" Success

I posted my game on the BGG design forum and waited for some sort of feedback. I was proud of the game, and I believed some people could really enjoy it.

But as happens with all my indie games, there was zero response. Weeks passed and I shrugged it off. I was used to invisibility in the game industry by now.

Tip 7: Marketing is a beast that's hard to tame. A lack of response doesn't imply failure as a designer, but as a marketer. Don't assume your game sucks because no one responds; hunt down players and force them to play if you need to. Getting people to play is the only way you can accurately judge a design.

While surfing the BGG boards, I noticed a post looking for standard playing card games. I sent him a private message saying “I've got a game that might fit your needs,” and a link to the PDF. Later that day, he got back to me and told me if was a great game and that he could see it being published. We chatted for an hour or so about things he'd like to see and things I had planned to do and, for the first time in years, I was motivated to make a game.

Note: That member was Ben Stanley, whom you'll see in the special thanks for the game. Without him, Cards of Cthulhu would have been another dead game idea.

Expanding the Game

Note: Much of the following is no longer the same in the final product! Consult this as a dev log and not as a sales pitch.

Before I go any further, I want to bring up a concept that is very important to game design. While indie devs tend to shame those of us who use it, it's one of the most effective tools in making a good game: a target audience.

In the case of Cards of Cthulhu, I knew that the game had very simple rules and a short playtime. While I don't personally enjoy casual games, I knew that the game would be a good fit for that crowd. In fact, my sales pitch to DVG was: “a game for people who want to play Cthulhu but don't want to spend the time or money for the current larger existing games.”

By knowing your target audience, you will have an immediate answer to many design questions; whether it's challenge, complexity, or depth, the answers all depend on who you want playing the game.   

Tip 8: When making a casual game, focus on low player “investment”. Low price tag, short playtime, simple-to-learn rules, and fast-moving action.

I took a single sheet of lined paper and I cut it into 12 rectangles. These paper “cards” would be my prototype until very late in development.

Tip 9: Paper is hard to shuffle. It's smarter to use index cards for these early prototypes. Otherwise, put the paper card into a card sleeve with a standard playing card to back it. 

As usual, I didn't write anything on the cards, I just played the game while trying new “powers” every few turns. I used a similar method to before: I kept asking myself “What I do I wish I could do?”

When I eventually found a rule that seemed fun, I'd write it down on the card. When I needed to make a change, I scribbled it out and wrote the new ones. At this stage, nothing needed to look good, it just needed to work.

I didn't create all the characters at the same time; I only came up with three of them before moving on to a new rule.

Tip 10: Small scale test everything! In a large project, it's difficult to pinpoint where a game is failing. Small tests will allow you to solidify mechanics a little bit at a time. Little chunks will be easier to work with—and easier to throw away when they don't work they way you expected.

I knew that I wanted each cult to have its own flavor and unique challenges, but I also knew that individual playing cards would be expensive, and individual cards would be hard to balance. This is when I built the “Cult Boards”, playing mats that offer unique powers to each cult. This served multiple purposes:

  • This would make it easy if I decided to go Print and Play: just four single-sheet pages to print.
  • The boards could have the powers and flavor text to remind the player of the individual cults.
  • These playing mats give the player a visual reference of where to play the cards, making it easier to learn the rules.
  • In the future, I could create more than four cults and simply shuffle out four cults for each game. Replayability and expansions galore!

Tip 11: Use your components to judge cost. The more pieces you have, the more expensive your game will need to be. Keep this in mind when adding new things. Consider using The Game Crafter's price estimation tools on your own project. While the numbers won't be accurate to a real print run, they can still give you an idea of the relative cost of your components.

Soon, I had one cult board per suit and four playable characters. Play tests felt very good in terms of replay, and I wanted to put even more focus on this. So, I built a couple of “Item” cards that would randomly assigned at the beginning of the game.

(Note: The items may have actually been added after being picked up by DVG. I don't remember the specifics.)

With all of the mechanics in place and reasonably balanced, creating new items, characters and cults was just a matter of time and effort. The combination of random heroes, items, and cults meant that no two games were exactly alike. Strategies needed to change depending on which artifacts were available or what powers I had.

I may not enjoy casual games, but I knew that the game was good. Playtesters supported my opinion with unanimous positive responses. This game was getting pretty close to release. 

To Self-Publish or Not?

This was a good game with a lot of expansion possibilities, and I knew that royalties are very  small with publishers, so I felt that self-publishing had a lot of potential—if I could pull it off. So, I started to research artists, manufacturers and distributors. I had requested quotes and started to run the numbers.

Fun fact: The artist that I had bookmarked as “The guy I want” was Cloud Quinot, the artist that the game's publisher eventually hired.

In the end, I decided that self-publishing would be a bad decision for a few reasons:

  1. Art and manufacturing is expensive, and I couldn't afford to gamble with my limited funds.
  2. Cthulhu is a minefield of legal issues. Certain aspects are public domain ,while others aren't. I didn't want to navigate that alone.
  3. After my failed indie work in the past, I didn't trust my own marketing skills. Until I have a following as a designer, I know I'll have to trust others.
  4. Finally, my past indie work taught me that I hate business. I just want to make games and leave the business to someone else.

With all this in mind, I knew that finding a publisher would be my wisest option for creating my first board game.

Tip 12: Know your own skills and weaknesses. Lying to yourself will only hurt you in the end.

Breaking the Rule I'm About to Teach You!

Tip 13: Research your publishers to find someone who is interested in the same audience or play-style as your game. The better your game matches up to what they already do, the more likely they are to publish it.

Because I'm highly uncomfortable in social situations, I had decided to practice my sales pitch on a publisher who wouldn't be interested in my game. DVG is primarily a publisher of historical wargames, who had just posted on the Board Game Designers Forum that they were looking for new games to publish. I immediately wrote an email that described the game and its target audience.

Turns out they were interested. Maybe I should try to intentionally fail more often?

Contacting a publisher is actually far easier than you'd expect. Most of them have contact information on their websites often even labeled for "Submissions". Keep in mind, large companies like Fantasy Flight don't usually accept outside submissions, so it's smart to stick with small to mid-sized studios.

Start with a brief message stating your target audience, playtime, and a quick overview of the game. Don't send them the full game until they've expressed interest, to save you both the time. This may take a while, because most board game publishers are made up of a handful of employees.  These are small operations and they can get busy.

Building a Publisher Prototype

Cards of Cthulhu was an extremely easy prototype, to create because it had so few components.

Tip 14: Prototypes don't need to look good or have fancy artwork; publishers usually want to hire their own artists for the final product. But the prototype needs to feel good. Make your cards feel like real playing cards and your counters easy to pick up and work with. Poor playability will distract from the important thing: your game.

I had printed out the cult boards and item/investigator cards onto a heavy cardstock.

Note that the board and cards are on the same sheet. My final game required me to print only five sheets of cardstock because I fit the cards in. Being component-light means that the game is cheaper to make and costs the player less.

Normally, I'd recommend putting cards into sleeves, but here there weren't many investigator cards and there was very little shuffling involved, so these cards wouldn't detract from the experience. But because the main deck of cards did need shuffling, I didn't want to skimp on these. I went to the dollar store and bought a brand new set of playing cards to put into the envelope.

Tip 15: Dollar stores are your friend. Index cards, poster board, poker chips, and dice are all cheap. With a little creativity you can get most of your components here.

Once you've gathered the pieces, I recommend that you spend a week or two playing with the prototype. This will let you see how it feels before shipping it to the publisher.

Contracts

Obviously, DVG liked the game and sent me a contract. But I'm not going to go into the personal story here, just some tips from my experiences:

Tip 16: Read the contract carefully! Make sure that everything has specific dates and numbers. Specifics will protect both parties.

Tip 17: Don't sign anything you can't live with. If you aren't comfortable with the terms, negotiate! You may even need to walk away and find a new publisher. It won't be easy to walk away from a publishing deal, but you don't ever want to sign something you can't stand behind.


Tip 18: I recommend having a specific “publish by” date and potential “return of rights” clauses. They may be willing to negotiate returning the rights to you under certain conditions such as selling their company or after a certain number of years without a printing. I've read more than a few horror stories where people lose the rights to their game despite it never hitting the shelves.

Post-Publisher Work

I can't go into details here because there are NDAs involved, so, again, I'll just offer a few tips.

Tip 19: The publisher is the owner now, and things will change! If you don't want someone changing your artistic baby, you should self publish.

Tip 20: Your work is not complete. You'll likely need to make changes to fit the publisher's marketing needs or printing requirements. This can be insanely simple changes, or some pretty hardcore ones. Be ready to work.

Tip 21: You and the publisher are on the same side: you both want to sell a billion copies. Even if you don't agree with their choices, you should understand that it isn't personal. They want to succeed and they're following their own experiences. Hopefully, they know more than you do.

Tip #22: If you can, go to trade shows or visit local game stores. I've had a few showings at local shops with the prototype, and people will love meeting you. If they like you personally, it's an almost guaranteed sale. (And note that it'll be far more effective if you don't live in the middle of nowhere, as I do.)

Post Publishing

Once you get through that first game, the rest of the field is much easier. The shipped game will help your sales pitch when contacting new publishers, and hopefully you'll have some fans to buy your next game.

More importantly, though, you'll have the confidence that you have what it takes.  

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