A Crash Course in Board Game Marketing & Promotion

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Self-publishing a board game is a long, drawn out process. Some of this goes back to the process of creating your game, getting it manufactured, and raising funds. Yet if there were a single thing that self-publishers regularly fail at, it’s marketing.

Marketing covers a wide array of activities that convince people to care about and eventually buy your game. Yet that definition doesn’t do it justice. Marketing is best understood as an ongoing process that breathes itself into everything you do as a self-publishing board game developer. As an example, look at this old project timeline for Highways & Byways. That gray bar at the bottom of the chart that stretches from the beginning to the end is labelled Marketing.

 

 

Marketing is something I put tons of time and thought into. I’ve graduated with my MBA and I’m a published researcher in the subject of online viral marketing. Even still, there is so much to learn that even with that background, I have a hard time getting my arms around marketing as a whole.

For that reason, this is going to be a long post. I’ve broken it into 12 distinct sections for the sake of readability.

  1. Targeting
  2. Attention, Interest, Desire, And Action
  3. Product
  4. Your Niche
  5. Price
  6. Process & Logistics
  7. Promotion – Core Concepts
  8. Promotion – Outreach
  9. Promotion – Reviews
  10. Promotion – Distribution
  11. Promotion – Kickstarter
  12. Promotion – Advertising

 

Targeting

 

Game of Darts

 

There is no perfect product. There is no perfect audience. When it comes to marketing, there is no way to make something that is objectively the best in all situations. Because value is so subjective, what you need to focus on is making the perfect product for a very specific audience.

In board gaming, there are lots of little communities. Remember, the board game community is not a monolithic singular entity, but rather a whole bunch of different mini-communities with interests that roughly line up. For example, I’ll never get people to play Twilight Struggle with me at a party, but Codenames…now we’re talking. All the considerations that go into making a game –  length, weight, price, art style, gameplay, packaging, and so on – needs to be tailored for a very specific audience. Alternatively, you can make whatever you want and just find the perfect audience later. Both approaches work and have different pros and cons.

The goal of marketing, especially when you’re small and just getting started, is not to broadcast your message. Until you have a big media presence, you can’t really use “the hype machine” to your advantage. You just don’t have the power to do that. You can, however, target a very particular audience – this is the best use of your limited resources and it’s much more effective. Don’t broadcast. Narrowcast instead.

 

Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action

 

I’ve mentioned the AIDA model before in How to Get Big on Twitter as a Board Game Dev. Much of what I said there bears repeating.

 

AIDA Model

 

AIDA stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. When you’re a marketer, the first thing you need to do is get people to know you exist – attention. Then you have to make people care about your game – interest. If they start to want your game, that’s a good sign – desire. Next, they get on your website or Amazon with intention to buy – action. Marketing is a slow dance. You have to very slowly build your reputation.

 

The idea here is that marketing is not just about getting attention and targeting your audience well. No, it’s about convincing people to buy your game and to talk about. This is a multi-step process and you need to understand that. You cannot simply shout about your game into the void of Twitter and pray for the best. You need to create a “sales funnel.”

Here is an example of a sales funnel:

  • Use social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to “generate leads” or garner Attention.
  • Ask people individually if they’d like to sign up for your newsletter. If they say yes, that’s Interest.
  • Use your newsletter effectively to create Desire.
  • Once you’ve created desire, ask them to take Action, like backing your Kickstarter.

There are a million ways to do this and I can’t tell you the best. In fact, I’m still tweaking, learning, and growing all the time on this because I’ve not yet perfected my sales funnel.

 

Product

 

If you look on Board Game Geek, you’ll find that there are so many types of games out there. It’ll make your head spin. You want to know exactly what sort of game you’re making so that you can select the ideal target market and tweak around them. If you can’t describe your game, you’re in deep marketing trouble.

I suggest you look on Board Game Geek to find similar games to yours. There will always be similar games. Know how to make comparisons of your game to other games. Highways & Byways, for example, is a racing game with a board that looks like Ticket to Ride crossed with a highway map.

Know how to describe mechanics that are in your game and see who it appeals to. Some people dislike “take that” mechanics because they’re too mean-spirited, such as the well-regarded reviewer, Rahdo. It’s no use selling a game with “take that” mechanics to him, then, is it? Likewise, some people really, really love “take that” mechanics and they’re the ones I sell War Co. to.

Know exactly who you’re trying to appeal to. This determines your target audience. Your target audience will differ with each game.

 

Your Niche

 

The intersection of your product and your target makes your niche. This is a special place in the market that you occupy better than anyone else (ideally). Your niche in the board game industry is your competitive advantage. You want to own a niche. You want to scratch a particular itch for a particular person better than anyone else.

When you have the perfect product for a specific target, that’s how you get a niche. When you have a working sales funnel that your target audience responds to, that’s how you turn a niche into cash.

 

Price

 

Price is not terribly important. I know, blasphemy, but bear with me for a second. If you’re making the perfect game for your niche, your customers are lot less likely to nickel and dime you. For that matter, in my observation, board gamers are willing to spend money hand over fist for a lot of new games. That’s why you see a lot of big titles retailing at 70, 80, or 100 dollars.

The degree to which customers make decisions based solely on price is called “price sensitivity.” Board gamers aren’t all that sensitive to price, and here’s some proof…

 

 

Process & Logistics

 

Marketing is more than simply product, niche, pricing, and setting up a marketing system. It’s also about the subjective experiences that people have while they’re dealing with you. It’s also about what people think about when they hear about your game, when they hear about your website, and when they hear your name. This can all be classed under the bailiwick of “branding.”

How do you control your perceived branding? Yes, your website, logo, and all that stuff matters, but let’s talk about four specific logistics processes which affect how people perceive your brand:

 

  1. The sales process. Everything about how you approach people affects your brand. From the language you use, the venues you reach out to people through, and the entire process by which you persuade people to buy your product falls under the sales process.
  2. The buying or pre-order process. The website or offline sales channels you use to facilitate buying or pre-ordering affect how people see you. You want purchasing to be as seamless as possible so you appear professional.
  3. The fulfillment process. You need to fulfill games as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. You want people to think of you as someone who keeps their promises.
  4. The returns process. If people decide they don’t like your game, you need to have a seamless return process. People who return your games but have a good experience returning the game will have a more positive view of your brand. They might choose to buy from you later.

 

While processes and logistics may seem just like means to an end, it’s important that people feel like they’re being treated well at every step of the process. This is an important part of marketing because these processes will determine your reputation.

 

Promotion – Core Concepts

 

Wikipedia says that “[p]romotion covers the methods of communication that a marketer uses to provide information about it’s product.” In short, promotion is how you spread the word about your business. When you’re a first time business owner, or especially a first time game dev, mastery of promotion is absolutely critical to your success. That’s why half this guide is dedicated to promotion and promotion alone.

Promotion is a big tent that covers a lot of different concepts which I cover in more detail below. The first is outreach – how you find first-time customers (also known as “lead generation”). One very specific type of outreach that is critical in the board game industry is the review process. Then you have distribution, which tends to overlap with promotion in some critical ways. Kickstarter itself, which many people falsely see as the means of succeeding in the board game industry in and of itself, is a form of promotion. Finally, there is also advertising – a very effective and nuanced form of promotion that tends to scare people off because it costs money.

 

Promotion – Outreach

 

 

Outreach is how you find people to care about your game. It is how you find your target and tell them about your product so that you can carve out your niche. Some people call this “lead generation.”

There are a number of great ways you can run an effective outreach campaign. You can use social media, go to conventions, do an email newsletter, start a chat room, create a Facebook group, and even advertise. While there are some methods that are more effective than others, you want to choose a form of outreach that you like and really stick to it. Just try one or two forms of outreach at first and work your way up if you find that you have enough time to do more.

Social media includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other popular websites where people tend to hang out. This is what people immediately jump to when they think of outreach. However, mastering social media is a challenge all of its own and that requires nuanced thinking which I spell out in Setting Up Social Media as a Board Game Dev: A Primer Course. This is the most approachable way to find and reach out to your target audience, but it’s also a fantastic way to get ignored in the unending shuffle of these constantly noisy networks.

You can also meet a lot of people very quickly by going to board game cons. By meeting people face-to-face and getting contact information such as phone numbers and email addresses, you can get reach out to lots of people in a short amount of time. Cons, however, are intimidating, cost a lot of money, and take a lot of time. As I have a full-time job and can’t take off that many days, cons are not right for me most of the time – though I am beginning to seek out more weekend cons. Don’t write them off just because they don’t work for me yet!

Email newsletters are a great way to reach out to people, too. You have to ask for a lot of email addresses and put out a regular, high-quality newsletter with a service like Mailchimp. It’s tricky to do both of these things, but email is by far one of the greatest ways to contact people online. Given a choice between a mailing list of 100 and a Twitter following of 1000, I would take the mailing list every single time – no contest. I have personally had great results with my newsletter (which you should totally sign up for).

I cannot begin to list all the different forms of outreach. This aspect of business rewards creativity and hard work. As long as you can reach out to a highly targeted group of people and keep in touch with them on a systematic basis, you’re well on your way to succeeding with outreach.

 

Promotion – Reviews

 

Reviews warrant their own section as a very specific form of outreach. They are such a critical credibility-builder for new game devs. Good reviews convince people to buy your game. The occasional bad review still gets your name out there for others to discover you later, plus it makes you look more authentic.

Use Reddit, Board Game Geek, and social media to identify reviewers who fall within your target market. You’ll want to send games to them when it comes time for the review stage of your game’s development. If the reviewer is a professional with an engaged audience and you select based on them falling within your target market, you have a good chance of getting a good review that is seen by people who were already predisposed to like your game’s style from the get-go.

 

Promotion – Distribution

 

Distribution involves ways that your game is seen outside of just your website or company Amazon account. It is sometimes helpful to have third-party retailers or subscription boxes sell your game on your behalf. When you’re starting out, the exposure alone can be extremely useful to you. Good distribution gets your game seen by more people.

Want to know a secret? This is actually something I’ve bungled on War Co. in the past, so I don’t want to purport to be an expert on this. I encourage you to ask questions about the ideal way to distribute your game and do better than I did my first time.

 

Promotion – Kickstarter

 

Kickstarter is the last step in a long marketing dance for a lot of game developers. Your Kickstarter campaign is generally only the Action part of AIDA. Getting people to pay Attention, growing their Interest, and cultivating Desire – those are all up to you. Kickstarter is nothing more than a struck match on a pile of tinder that you assembled yourself.

That said, about 30-40% of backers tend to find you through the search, meaning Kickstarter is a good form of outreach. A lot of people who don’t care at all about social media are trawling Kickstarter in search of the newest new. Still, the degree to which Kickstarter contributes dollars-wise tends to pin itself to how much of an entourage you bring on your own.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that $1 rewards are one of the best things you can have on Kickstarter. Yes, it makes your backer count go up, which is itself a good thing. More importantly, though, once the campaign is done, you can ask everyone to fill out a survey – meaning you can ask for email addresses if you have a newsletter. Kickstarter is not just a way of convincing people to give you money, it can also be a way to capture and hold attention for future games.

 

Promotion – Advertising

 

Advertising is the last thing I wanted to cover. People tend to get spooked by advertising because they hate the idea of giving up their hard earned cash for something abstract. Plus, it’s super easy to get burned by advertising and you see a lot of smart people talking bad about advertising because they failed to understand more critical, basic marketing lessons. Still, the potential time savings might just be worth a few hundred bucks in Facebook ads. You’d be a fool to dismiss advertising entirely.

Facebook and Board Game Geek tend to be pretty good places to advertise board games. I’d stick to Facebook when you’re new, though, because Board Game Geek has a really high minimum expense. Facebook doesn’t require you to spend much at all and it also comes with robust analytics that let you make the most of your ad.

When you make an ad, you need to act like a scientist, creating ads and seeing how people react to them. You subtly tweak them until you get better and better responses. But where do you begin? Start with something that your target audience will respond to. Start with the tightest, smallest possible audience.

 

 

Once you have a tight target and a good basic idea of what to say to grab attention, you need one last thing. You need to make sure your ad goes to a page that leads to high conversions. The word “conversion” here means “a person who does what you want them to do” in marketing jargon. Do you want them to follow you on Twitter, buy your game, back your campaign, or sign up for your newsletter? Think hard about what you want people to do once you start an ad.

 


 

Marketing board games can be very tricky. This article was designed to give you a broad overview of all the different things that go into marketing. My hope is that by spelling it all out, you’ll be more equipped to pitch your game to people who care. Use this guide to ask more questions, run more tests, and get your wheels turning.

If you have any questions or comments, I encourage you to comment below 🙂

How to Make a Tabletop Simulator Demo of Your Board Game

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & BywaysJust here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here.

 


 

Many of you know that I’m in love with Tabletop Simulator as a testing tool. It’s a simple app on the Steam store, it costs $19.99, and it’s been an extraordinary resource for me during the development of War Co. and especially Highways & Byways.

 

 

I’d like to explain to you exactly how to create a demo of your board game on Tabletop Simulator, but first let’s discuss what I perceive as its four main benefits:

 

  1. It saves you a ton of money and time on prototyping. Even using simple paper and ink from your printer can add up pretty quickly when you’re making different versions of your game. This can easily add up into the hundreds of dollars, as it did with War Co. for me before I discovered LackeyCCG and eventually Tabletop Sim.
  2. It takes less time to create a prototype as well. Instead of physically creating a new game or swapping out parts every time you make a substantial change, you can simply update the image files on your Tabletop Sim demo. It’s pretty straightforward.
  3. You’re able to play-test online and not just in person. This means you can find play-testers all over the world, which allows you to see how well your game communicates with people from different cultures or who don’t speak your language as well. Not to mention, it’s easier for many people to find others online than in person.
  4. Lastly, because you can play online, you get the tremendous opportunity to livestream your game with people who have a good size audience on Twitch or YouTube. This is one of the most underrated marketing opportunities around for board game dev. I could easily make two or three articles on livestreaming board games.

 

How to Make a Tabletop Simulator Demo of Your Board Game

 

Step One: Create Images of Your Board, Cards, and Components

For the purposes of this guide, let’s assume your game involves a board, some cards, and some two-dimensional pieces. If it involves 3D models or other complex pieces, see the knowledge base that the development studio put together.

First, you’ll want to create JPG images of your board and each unique component. If you have duplicates of components, just create a single JPG – you can copy and paste the piece multiple times once you’ve loaded into Tabletop Simulator. This is pretty straightforward – all you need are some files that show what they actually look like. The Tabletop Simulator software will automatically size the board and pieces around your images.

Cards are more complicated. You’ll need to use this template or one similar to it. You’ll need to place the front of each card on one of these numbered slots, starting with 1 and working your way up from there. If you have 50 cards, you’ll fill up the first 50 slots and no others. If you have more than 69 cards, you’ll need to make multiple decks. Once you have all cards placed, save the whole grid as a JPG.

If your cards are a different dimension than the template linked above, you’ll need to create a template that is 10 times the width of a card and 7 times its height. Then you’ll place several gridlines so you get a similar template with different dimensions.

As for the card back, you’ll just need to save that as a JPG. If you have multiple card backs per deck, you’ll need to make another grid based on the template. Card back 1 needs to correspond to card front 1, card back 2 needs to correspond to card front 2, and so on.

 

 

Step Two: Upload Your Images to the Internet

Once you have your board, cards, and other pieces ready as JPG files, you need to upload them to the internet. When you’re creating a Tabletop Simulator demo, you’ll need to reference the URL of each image. I suggest you upload files to your own web server, if you have a website. If you don’t have your own web servers, Imgur will do the job.

 

Step Three: Create a Workshop Item on Tabletop Simulator

  • Start Tabletop Simulator.
  • Click Single Player.
  • Click Custom.
  • Delete everything from the table. (You can use the default stuff, but I want to show you how to do this the long way.)
  • In the top middle of the screen, click Objects.
  • Click Table on the menu.
  • You should now see a screen similar to the one below where it shows a list of tabletops. Pick one you like.

 

 

Now that you have a table, let’s get a board on it.

  • Click Objects in the top middle of the screen.
  • On the menu that shows up on the right, click Components.
  • Click Boards.
  • You should see a screen similar to the one below. Copy and paste the URL of your board’s image.
  • Click Import.

 

 

 

Next, let’s add some cards.

  • Click Objects.
  • Click Components.
  • Click Cards.
  • Click Custom.
  • You should see a prompt like below. Fill it in as follows:
    • Face – enter the URL of your card fronts template
    • Unique Backs – check only if each card has a different back
    • Back – enter the URL of your single card back OR the unique card backs  template
    • Width – 10
    • Height – 7
    • Number – number of cards in the deck
    • Sideways – check only if your cards are meant to be used sideways
    • Back is Hidden – check
  • Click Import.

 

 

To add a custom component, follow these instructions.

  • Click Objects.
  • Click Components.
  • Click Custom.
  • Click Tile for flat pieces or Figurine for stand-up pieces.
  • You should see a prompt like below. Fill it in as follows:
    • Type – Box for square, Hex for hexagon, Circle for circle, Rounded for rounded square
    • Top Image – enter URL
    • Bottom Image – enter URL
    • Thickness – 0.20
    • Stackable – (your choice)
    • Stretch to Aspect Ratio – (checked)
  • Click Import.

 

 

 

At this point, you can hover over any individual piece and press the plus or minus key to increase or decrease its size. You can also highlight any pieces you wish to copy and use CTRL+C and CTRL+V to make copies.

 

Well, let’s not go overboard with copy-paste…

 

Step Four: Release the Workshop Item

Once you’re done, click Upload > Workshop Upload. Fill out all the information, and click Upload. It will upload it to Steam and then give you a Workshop ID. Any time you want to update your workshop item, pull up this same window and click the Update Workshop tab. Then type in the Workshop ID, fill out the information, and click Update.

 

 

Step Five: Get Noticed

If you plan on using Tabletop Simulator for anything other than rapid prototyping, it’s not enough to simply create a Tabletop Simulator demo. After you create the demo, you’ll need to go looking for people who will want to play your game. This can be tricky because not everybody has Tabletop Simulator and oftentimes people are not willing to spend the $19.99 to get it. Think about how you spread your message. Consider reaching out to people who like Tabletop Simulator and play-testing new games on Twitter or in Facebook groups.

 

There you have it! This is a quick and dirty guide on getting started in Tabletop Simulator. Once you understand the basics, you can learn more of the nuanced aspects of creating a demo. I’m just here to help you get started 🙂

 


 

Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

 

  • I’ve done some more play-testing and the balance is pretty much spot-on now.
  • Highways & Byways is ready for physical prototyping.
  • I’ll be putting together a “blind play-test kit” pretty soon, complete with everything people need to play in addition to a way of getting feedback to me. I’m working out the logistics of this – not sure how I’m going to do it yet.

How to Choose Your Board Game’s Theme

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Board games can be about all sorts of things. You can conquer nations, build cities, explore space, solve mysteries, and so much more. Games, at their core, might just be a series of mechanics and rules, but themes keep us from feeling like we’re playing out the logical conclusion of mathematical functions.

To clear things up, let’s go ahead and define “theme.” A lot of people use “theme” the way that Board Game Geek does. Games like Battlestar Galactica and War of the Ring have story arcs that are inspired by the intellectual properties from which they originated. Thematic games like this are often affectionately referred to by board gamers as “Ameritrash.” These same gamers will also say games like Patchwork and Power Grid do not have themes, which makes them “eurogames.”

I’m not going to get into the eurogame vs. Ameritrash definition debate since I think it’s silly and largely a matter of semantics. Instead, I’m going to borrow from the model I used in Five Levels of Communication through Game Development and use the term “internal narrative” from this point on. Internal narrative includes theme, story, art, components, and even box design. It covers everything about the game itself as a complete product minus the gameplay.

 

Five Levels of Communication through Game Development

 

In this sense, even games that “lack a theme” like Patchwork and Power Grid have internal narratives. In Patchwork, you’re building a quilt and in Power Grid, you’re bringing electricity to everybody in Germany. These games may not have themes per se, but they do use metaphors. Even Tetris – a completely abstract game – has an inner narrative. “Your job is to stack blocks.”

These metaphors – be they explicit or implicit – help us to understand the game that we are playing. Good metaphors are among the most valuable tools available to the game developer. The inner narrative should reinforce the game’s mechanics and rules. What you’re going for is Theme-Mechanic Unity. In Pandemic, every action you take is part of a plan to cure the disease. In Twilight Struggle, everything you do is to make life a little worse for the USA or USSR.

 

How to Achieve Theme-Mechanic Unity

 

Speaking in broad strokes, there are two methods you can achieve Theme-Mechanic Unity. You can start with the game and create a narrative around it later to justify what is going on. Alternatively, you can start with an idea for how you want the game to feel and then slowly experiment and tweak things until the gameplay organically arises out of your experiments. Many board game designers have different techniques, but they all tend to fall into one of these two broad categories.

To explain how these two methods of achieving Theme-Mechanic Unity, I’ll use the two games I’ve made as examples. I do this because I want you to see my thought process.

 

Method 1: Start with the Game & Add the Narrative

This is what I did with War Co. When I started making this game – the final version, not the childhood game it’s loosely based on – I started with a spreadsheet. There was a column for each of the following: card name, type, strength, and effect. That was pretty much all there was to it. I played the game a few times until I had something working, and then I wrote a 200-300 word story for each card, all of which you can find on the website. The story was written to justify the effect of the card in the abstract. Then James Masino, the artist for War Co. and my upcoming game Highways & Byways, drew art around the stories.

 

All the stories, all the art, and my entire marketing approach were based around the game’s mechanics themselves. War Co. started out as an exercise in mathematics more than a game with a story to tell. It was only after lots and lots of testing that I was able to sew together the zero-sum mechanics and the wartorn post-apocalyptic landscape.

The narrative was adapted to the game to achieve Theme-Mechanic Unity.

 

Method 2: Start with the Narrative & Let the Game Arise

This is what I did with Highways & Byways. I was inspired by some road trips I had taken around the United States and I said, literally out loud in an empty car: “this would be a good idea for a board game.” I did endless research on road trip websites to find 72 out-of-the-way roads called “byways.” Then I looked at Google Maps to figure out how these byways could be stitched together with highways to create one endlessly driveable landscape. The map existed before I had any idea what to do with it.

 

 

I added spaces and added a basic objective: complete certain byways to win. I kept tweaking and tweaking until I had working mechanics on this ugly MS paint map that I had started with. I knew I wanted to have a game where players felt like they were in motion, so it naturally developed into a race. Eventually, I added new mechanics like the Event Pool and Construction, which cause various things to happen to players, just as various things would happen to road-trippers in bad cars in out-of-the-way places.

The map was slowly adjusted over time with road shapes being changed and spaces rearranged for readability. The game changed so many times during its development (which is close to complete now), but the basic commitment to making players feel like they are taking a road trip never changed. I built a game around that feeling.

The game was adapted to the narrative to achieve Theme-Mechanic Unity.

 


 

We can all agree that clear communication is critical in game development and marketing. Yet the methods by which we attain this clarity are diverse. Part of creativity is self-discovery. As you work on your first game, you’ll find out your style. Will you start with a story or will you start with a game mechanic?