The Board Game Industry: Powers That Be & The Hype Machine

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This is not a post about what you need to do, think, or spend to make a game, nor is it a post about board games themselves. This is a post about the players in a much bigger game: the board game industry itself. It’s time to talk about your potential customers, the eight powerful groups in the board game industry, and The Hype Machine.



Your Potential Customers


It feels unnatural to refer to players as customers when you first do it. This is something you will need to make peace with if you plan to self-publish your game, since they are one and the same. Marketing and promotion is an ongoing process and you can’t shortcut it if you want to sell your print run or crowdfund some of the costs.

To respond to that grossed-out schmoozy feeling you might get from referring to players as customers, ask yourself this question: “why is it bad to be sold to?” The answer is going to be some variation of “I don’t want or need the thing and/or I cannot afford it.” There is nothing intrinsically wrong with selling things you work hard on. The weird feeling that comes with selling stems from either selling bad stuff or from selling to the wrong people.

The most ethical way to sell, and indeed, effective way to sell is to have a crystal clear picture of your customers. What do they like? What do they dislike? How old are they? How much money do they have? Where do they hang out? How do they talk? How do they like to be approached? Why do they like the things they like and dislike the things they dislike?

In general, hobby board gamers tend to be males around 30 who have discretionary income. That narrows it down some, but that’s still too broad to be useful. You need to know the specific sort of people who would like your game and you need to know how they think.

“How do I do that?” Here are my recommendations:

  • Get a Twitter (or some social media site you prefer).
  • Create a private list.
  • Find games like yours.
  • Find people who follow games like yours. Look for people within that group who might like your game. Add them to the list.
  • Read what they say for a while. Be a fly on the wall.

Good selling starts with listening. Customer relationships work like friendships and romantic relationships: by attending to the needs of others within the boundaries of what you can reasonably do. Get to know people so well that you can rattle off a description of who they are and what they like.


Powerful Groups within the Board Game Industry




Where there are people interested in something, that interest will result in a complex series of social structures. In board games, for the sake of this conversation, we’ll refer to them as the “board game industry.” It’s a bit silly to treat it as a singular monolith, as the board game industry is made up of nothing but individuals. Anyhow, when these people get together, they tend to become parts of eight influential groups.


Group 1: The Players

Everything in board gaming starts with the players. Players determine which types of games are profitable and how much they are willing to pay to play. Players gather in different places, ultimately determining which websites are popular, which bloggers are read, which podcasters are listened to, which conventions are attended, and – most importantly – which games are played. If there is one group you need to pay attention to it’s the players. If you make a board game, you want to spend more of your time communicating with players than any other group.


Group 2: The Manufacturers

Ever wonder why a lot of board games come with punch-out tokens instead of metal cubes? It all comes down to manufacturing costs. Manufacturers determine which game pieces are cheap to make, and by extension, have a good deal of influence over what players play and what becomes popular and expected. On a more personal note, good manufacturing is critical to your game being well-received, but for now, I’m sticking mostly to industry-level effects. In that sense, manufacturers collectively set expectations for how nice a board game will feel in players’ hands.


Group 3: Games Like Yours

Board games work sort of like books and music as an industry. Games tend to complement each other instead of directly compete. This is partially due to the collector mentality, partially due to the “luxury hobby” status of board gaming, and partially because of the “if you like X, you’ll like Y” effect. That said, you have to pay attention to board games that resemble the ones you’re making. For starters, you don’t want to accidentally create a knock-off Catan. Perhaps more importantly, though, it becomes really important to pay attention to games like yours so that you can make comparisons that gamers can understand.

Oh, so your game – War Co. – is sort of like Netrunner and Star Realms…


Group 4: The Devs Who Make It

You’ll need to pay attention to the game developers who make it since they influence the thought patterns of players, fellow designers, and perhaps even manufacturers if they do something truly innovative that has a flattering cost/benefit case behind it. The success of Pandemic Legacy is leading people to make legacy-type games. The success of Jamey Stegmaier has led people to start blogs as a form of customer outreach. Watching what other successful people do gives you an idea of what direction the board game industry will go in.


Group 5: The Devs Who Don’t Make It

Of course, if you only look at successful game developers, you’re getting about half of the picture. Survival bias makes us think that all we have to do is copy successful people’s behaviors. Not so! You need to pay attention to game developers who cannot get their game Kickstarted. You need to pay attention to people who cannot break 1,000 Twitter followers. Pay attention to people who fulfill their game late. Pay attention to people who run out of inventory. Pay attention to people who go out of business.

They subtly affect the behaviors of game developers in the industry as well.


Group 6: The Media

Board game media includes everyone from the juggernauts behind Dice Tower, Shut Up & Sit Down, and Tabletop to the podcasters who get five downloads per episode. There is no shortage of reviewers, bloggers, podcasters, YouTubers, and streamers who all have subtle affects on the way that board games are perceived. Pay attention to the trends you see. One popular one I’ve seen lately is “play-throughs” on YouTube that show people what a game is like without them having to read the rules to learn. In fact, these channels have replaced rulebooks for some players entirely.

Reviews hold a massive amount of sway in whether or not people will buy your game. Bloggers have the ability to get people to click on your links at convenient times. Podcasts, for whatever reason, have the ability to get a brand name in your head like nothing else. Live streams, an incredibly underrated tool for outreach, has the ability to get you noticed by small, tight-knit communities of 15 and 20 – enough to start a movement.


Group 7: The Marketplaces

Kickstarter and Amazon are the go-to marketplaces for board games right now. When they do something different with games, it creates ripples throughout the whole industry. Kickstarter is a whole community in its own right. Pay attention to what gets noticed on those platforms and others that may take their places in the future.


Group 8: The Hang-Outs

Finally, board games are intrinsically social. The places that people talk about and play board games have a huge effect on how board games are sold, seen, and played. Online, there are communities on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Board Game Geek, and probably more places that I don’t even know the existence of yet. Offline, there are gaming stores and board game meetup groups. Get to know some of these hang-outs. Find one that works for you. I’d suggest finding one offline and one online. Pay attention to the trends in the hang-outs you use. Changes to them will change your approach to making and marketing your game.


The Hype Machine


The Board Game Hype Machine


When you get a bunch of people together, passions will run high and money will get passed around. It’ll create movements and excitement. Empires will be born and empires will crumble. A collective “spirit of the times” will rip through the community. In board games, I refer to this spirit of the time as “The Hype Machine.”

The Hype Machine determines which games people get really excited about. The Machine determines which games make $50,000 on Kickstarter and which ones make $5,000,000. The Hype Machine, just like the industry, is a metaphor for a complex mix of decentralized and disorganized factors which together influence people’s attitudes toward board gaming, board gamers, and board games.


Part 1: Barriers to Entry & Old Money

Like it or not, board games are expensive to create. They take thousands of dollars for manufacturing alone and thousands more for art. This is not accounting for the immense amount of time it takes to get started. Because it takes so much time and often tens of thousands of dollars to get off the ground, board game companies who have already successfully created board games have a big leg up. These companies meet the economic requirements of what comes next…


Part 2: Footholds of the Initiated

Because it costs so much money and takes so much time to get started, only a handful of board game companies and developers manage to survive past the “idea stage.” Board gamers are sometimes jaded to the idea of new game developers, saying things like “most Kickstarters suck” and “new game devs are a dime a dozen.” The flip-side of this negativity is that once a developer or a company successfully publishes just one game, they establish a reputation. If they publish several, that’s very impressive. Having a good reputation and enough money to keep making games are the “footholds of the initiated.” These things impress people and make players get excited about upcoming games from studios they’ve seen succeed before.


Part 3: Reviewers & the Hype Window

After crossing a certain threshold, game companies can start to make games that people actively, eagerly await. This is a massive step for a company and it takes a long time for a new developer to get there. Once games reach a certain point in popularity, new reviewers – who themselves are trying to become more popular – may feel uncomfortable expressing opinions outside of the norm. Because of that, game reviews will start to cluster around a certain consensus.

There are lot of great small reviewers who avoid falling into this trap. Many do not. I believe that when reviews cluster around the same basic point range of, say, 7-9 that players start to think “wow, this game is really good if it’s getting an 8 on all these channels.” In reality, reviewers who are just getting started don’t want to step outside of that “Hype Window.” Just as few music reviewers give the Beatles a bad score (even if they hate them), few game reviewers will give Scythe a bad score. Often times, this is simply because they play it more until they “understand the hype.”

There is a fair argument to be made that even the big-name reviewers with established brands are trapped by the expectations of their readers, but I haven’t seen too much evidence to support this yet.


Part 4: Second Hand News

It’s hard to get started because of money and time, but once a company has successful games and a reputation, they have disproportionate impact over some not-insignificant portions of the reviewer base. Reviewers tend to be thought leaders whose opinions are repeated in blogs and podcasts, as well as by other gamers. People look at and continue to repeat the findings of these reviews until games are consistently perceived in a certain way by a large population of gamers.

This is hype right here. Not every person plays into it. This is not a neat, linear process that follows immutable laws of nature.


Part 5: Spirit of the Hype

Once Second Hand News reaches a certain critical mass, it becomes common knowledge. Twilight Struggle is the best game because people went around saying it was the best game for a long time. Monopoly is terrible because people say it’s terrible. Once these narratives are in place, they’re very hard to change.


So Now What?


This is a big picture painted with theoretical notions based on opinions I’ve formed over years of time. How can a new game dev learn from this, though? What’s the point?

Understand that you’re part of a bigger picture. The board game industry is a large, decentralized community made up of tons of individuals acting in complicated ways. You’re not going to understand it all in a day, week, year, or 10 years.

Take your time. Not only does it take a long time to make games, but it takes a long time for people to care about you making games.

Get to know individuals one-on-one. The most important thing you can do to get people to care about you is to care about them. Talk to lots of gamers.


Don’t believe the hype. Trends come and go. Keep your head steady and form your own opinions. Listen to others, but don’t let go of who you are and what you like.

Everything You Need to Know About Highways & Byways So Far

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways. However, this week is purely an update – educational posts will resume as normal next week.



It has been about five months since I first started working on Highways & Byways. Just this last week, a lot of things finally clicked.

First things first: I am ready to play-test publicly online. If you are interested in play-testing Highways & Bywaysclick here to join the Facebook group so you can get notified of the play-testing events. In fact, we’ve already had a few play-test sessions and had a great time! I’m getting some really valuable feedback!



In order to play with us, you will need a Steam game called Tabletop Simulator. It does exactly what you’d expect it to. It costs $19.99, or $9.99 if you get lucky and you find it on a Steam sale.


How Highways & Byways Works


I’ve made lots of vague allusions to what Highways & Byways is, but now let’s get down to specifics.

Highways & Byways is a 2-4 player game that takes around an hour. It’s fairly lightweight and it’s the kind of game you can play with people at a casual game night or with people who never play games at all. It’s a game that includes and does not intimidate.

The whole point of the game is to take an epic road trip. It’s essentially a race game. The objective is to drive all your assigned byways and circle back home before anyone else. Your route is determined by your byways and each game you get different byways, which are determined by drafting at the beginning of the game. Over the course of the game, events and construction cause you to reroute, think on the fly, and strategize.

This is a game that you can play casually and with no real knowledge and still feel like you’re having a good time. It’s also a game that you can really learn the nuances of and become proficient in strategy and counter-play. More on that later, though, since I want to show you what it looks like.


Highways & Byways Visuals


James Masino is steadily working on most of the art, but the board itself is done. I’ve shared it below so that you can appreciate the quality of his work.



You’ll notice that the state boundary lines are extremely accurate, as James really bumped the lamp to get the right mix of realism and beauty. He’s the only guy I know who pays attention to things like the border irregularity in western Kentucky for a Photoshop layer that winds up being hidden anyway.

We’ve worked hard to take 72 real scenic roads and make them communicate well on a board. When printed, the board will be about 25 by 20 inches (or 64 by 51 cm), so each of those circular spaces is large enough to comfortably fit a piece while still keeping the approximate outline of the real roads. To keep the game nice and accessible, we stripped all text from the board and we instead refer you to locations using Byway Cards like what you see below.



We’ve also considered some other accessibility aspects. For one, you don’t have to be an American or know any of the state names to play this game. None of that knowledge is necessary. When it comes time to order a quote from a manufacturer, I’ll be sure to ask for pieces that are big and easy to use. Oh, and we considered color blindness, too…



Highways & Byways Basic Rules


You can find the full rule book online here. The rules still need a little tweaking here and there to truly optimize the game, but what you see there now is basically what it’s going to be like in the box.

Here are eight choice sentences that sum up the rules succinctly:

  • The first player to drive the entire length of all Byways depicted on their Byway Cards AND return to their Start Space is the winner.
  • Each player selects a Vehicle. Each Vehicle has a special ability. Special abilities grant cars immunity to certain Events or allow for faster movement on the board.
  • Each player will end up with 14 Blue Byway Cards and 2 Red Byway Cards.
  • Each player takes a Travel Marker and places it on the Byway depicted on the Byway Card just received. This is so all players can quickly and visually see where they and their opponents will be going in the game.
  • Once all players have 14 Blue Byway Cards and 2 Red Byway Cards, they each must do one and only one of the following:
    1. Discard 1 Red Byway Card and remove its Travel Marker from the board.
    2. Discard 2 Blue Byway Cards and remove their Travel Markers from the board.
  • At the beginning of every driving round…draw a random Construction Card. Players may not travel on any highway spaces which contain the letter depicted on the construction card.
  • Each player may move up to six (6) spaces per turn.
  • When all 5 Construction Card slots in the bottom right of the board have been filled…each player must pass their Event Card hand to the clockwise player.


What’s Left to Do?


Quite a bit, actually. I need to do tons and tons of play-testing with people from around the world. There is still quite a bit of art that needs to be created. Of course, I’ll want to raise funds on Kickstarter for the manufacturing process. Then I need to figure out how to sell the game afterward. If I had to give you an estimate on when I think the Kickstarter campaign would be, I’d say “first quarter of 2018.” Don’t pin me to that yet, though!




It’s my very good pleasure to share all these updates at once with you. If you’d like to get involved, I’d once again like to direct your attention to the Highways & Byways Facebook group. Sign up there, because that’s how we’ll coordinate games going forward.

That’s all I’ve got today. Time to get this show on the road!

How to Master Time (So You Can Make Games)

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Game development is a marathon. It’s a long, difficult endeavor that eliminates the unprepared by sapping their endurance a quarter-mile at a time. It takes at least a year, at the bare minimum, to take a board game idea and turn into a ready-to-sell product. Anything less than that is next to impossible, and 18-24 months is a lot more realistic.

Staying organized and managing your time well are critical to self-publishing a game. There are a lot of things to do, a lot of things to track, and a lot of time that needs to be spent. You need to keep your digital and physical files organized, you need to keep a to-do list, you need to keep a project timeline, and you need to make and stick to a calendar. If you do not stay organized, you’ll be pulled in too many different directions and you won’t get hardly anything done.

Let’s start from the top down. I’ll talk about big time-frames and how you can organize your time and your efforts in the long-term and we’ll slowly work our way down to from years to minutes.


Wall Clock



Accept that it takes at least a year to make a game, and often 18-24 months. Accept that it almost always takes more than one game to make a good amount of money. Accept that by self-publishing, you’re starting a business and that most businesses need 3-5 years to make a decent amount of money.

Years are too big of a time frame to meaningfully organize your activities around, but it’s important to accept the long arc of what you’re getting into. Lots of people make games. Most people quit. You don’t have to be one of them. I feel like the main differences between the quitters and the winners are expectations, passion, and willingness to improve.



Game development as a process falls into several stages, most of which take months. They include:

Game design and development. This is the process by which game ideas are crafted into working products. This usually takes at least 6 months. Making the game work isn’t necessarily the hard part. The hard parts are play testing it, getting artwork, and getting the whole product ready for the market.

Artwork. You get someone to do the art for your game. Unless you’re really talented, you shouldn’t do art for your own game. The amount of time this takes is dependent upon your artist’s schedule and the complexity of your game, but even a simple board game could take around 4 months.

Production. You’ll need to print some sample copies of your game to make sure all your ideas translate well to a physical product. This could take a month or more. It could take much, much longer if you wind up having to make changes.


Rubik's Cube Taken Apart
It takes a long time for games to come together. Photo taken by Hangsna and posted to Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY SA 3.0 (Source).


Reviews. Before you can launch a Kickstarter, you’ll need reviews for people to take you seriously. Reviewers tend to drag their feet, so you should account for two months between sending them a copy and them writing a review. You also need to account for the time it takes to produce sample copies. Budget 3 months for this.

Kickstarter. While most Kickstarters are around a month in length, the preparation before and the clean-up afterward take another month together. You should plan to spend about 2 months on Kickstarter. This is assuming, of course, that you succeed. About half of Kickstarters in the board game market don’t. If you fail, you’ll need to relaunch and that involves more time. Also, if you want to succeed in the first place, you’ll need to have a community built up from several months prior as well.

Manufacturing. It takes about a month to print board games. Then it takes about three months to ship them by sea. Yes, you read that right. You can air ship them, but it’s really expensive and I can’t recommend that you do that in good faith. Plan for 4 months to manufacture assuming everything goes well. Manufacturing delays in addition to that 4 month time frame are very common.

Fulfillment. Whether you ship your games yourself or with the help of third parties, it’s going to take a bare minimum of two weeks to get everything in the mail. Plus you’ll be intermittently solving problems related to fulfillment in the months to come.

Sales. This can go on for as long as your game has a community! Here is the thing, though: this never really ends.

Marketing. Even if you had a game perfectly ready to go, you’d still need to build a community through wise marketing and promotion practices for at least six months, but realistically closer to a year to make even a modest amount of money on Kickstarter.


How do you keep track of all of this? One such way is to create a Gantt chart, shown below. Each different stage can be imagined as a row. The columns represent time. This helps you get a feel for how your game’s creation process will work. If you get ahead or fall behind, you can tweak the bars to be shorter or longer and move everything else that comes along with it. I made this chart in Excel, but there are better programs for it.




Every week, it’s a good idea to set goals. Sure, you can have broader goals of “be a good game dev” and “make this game a real thing.” In fact, those are really important to have! But with weekly goals, your focus should be making them specific and achievable. Line up your weekly goals with your broader goals.

I like keeping my weekly goals in Evernote. I set weekly goals every Saturday and I track certain metrics like web traffic, followers, newsletter subscribers, and sales that I think line up with my bigger goals. Here’s what my weekly goals look like right now.




On a day-to-day basis, you want to make sure you have time to actually achieve what’s on your weekly goals. After all, it’s the weekly goals that link up to the monthly stages of board game development and the multi-year epic journey that is getting published. I suggest using Google Calendar to track your time in 30 minute blocks. You can move these blocks around as you like, but the idea is to actually set aside time every day to work on your goals.


Google Calendar



When it comes to setting up time for making a game, it’s not just about putting in long hours. Sure, you might have to put in long hours, but the reality is that you don’t have to put that much time in everyday to make it. You just have to put a good amount of time in most days for a few years.

Make your time count. Only spend time on what’s worthwhile. Try to schedule tasks when your mind and body are capable of doing them well. Always look for ways to improve your processes. If you can outsource work, do it. If you can automate work, do it. Work smart so that when you work hard, it’s worth the extra oomph!



Focus is critical. Find out what distracts you. Is it social media? The constant buzzing of text messages? Are your kids interrupting you? Is it noisy neighbors? Figure out what triggers distraction in you. Seek to eliminate or reduce distraction wherever you can so you don’t get your precious little minutes stolen.


Mindful use of your time is key to success in game development and self-publishing. Set realistic expectations. Have an understanding of what it takes to get from point A to point B. Set clear goals. Keep a schedule. Block off time. Reduce distractions. Improve processes.

You do this and you’re one step away from Start and one more step toward Finish.

8 Signs Your Game is Ready for Blind Play-Testing (Dev Diary: 08/11/17)

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.



Play-testing has been really high up on my radar for the last couple of weeks. Between 7 Subtle Player Behaviors You Should Notice When Play-Testing and The Art of the Play Test: Designing Tests and Keeping Records, you might think that’s all I’ve got on my mind. You’d mostly be right to think that, too. Highways & Byways is ready for blind play-testing, and I’ll be spending this weekend setting up a plan on how I’m going to coordinate testing from this point forward.



It took me a long time to get this game ready for blind play-testing. But before we talk any more about blind play-testing, let’s define it.


Blind play-testing is when you give your game to other people with no instructions on how to play. You can choose to observe them while playing or elicit their feedback after the game has ended.


I tend to break this definition down even further. Please note these are “Brandonisms” and not formal board game design terms I’ve seen anywhere else:

  • Single-blind play-testing is when I give my game to other people with no instructions on how to play, but I still play as a player. The benefit is that I can observe directly how players act in response to certain strategies. The drawback is that it’s not truly blind play-testing, since players can pick up on what you’re doing.
  • Double-blind play-testing is when I give my game to other people with no instructions on how to play and I do not participate in the game at all. I can observe during the game or ask questions after the game is played, but the critical piece here is that I must not interfere with the game as it is going on.


To give you an idea what goes into getting a game ready for either type of blind play-testing, here are some things I’ve already done. I’ve play-tested the game a lot by myself, acting as 2-4 players at a time. Self-testing was my primary form of testing in the first and second versions of the game, when I wasn’t even sure if some of the core concepts would work. Then I started testing with my brother whose indefatigable patience and ready availability makes him invaluable in play-testing. A few versions later, I was testing with my parents and cousins. Once the game was pretty clearly on the right track, I started testing it with friends online and offline.

Blind play-testing requires that your game function well in both gameplay and communication aspects. Knowing when your game is ready for blind play-testing is not an easy call to make. For that matter, it can be scary to pass it on to people who may or may not like it. Yet blind play-testing is critical for making a market-ready board game and there is some data that only blind play-testing can provide.


8 Signs Your Game is Ready for Blind Play-Testing


1. The game can stand alone. You don’t need developer input to play any more.

If your game has gotten to the point where people can pick it up and play it without asking you questions, that is a very good sign. If you find that play-testers do not ask you many questions during your non-blind play-tests, you’re definitely on the right track.


2. Your game cannot be broken.

Part of why game developer presence is so important in early play-testing is because of the possibility for games to completely break down. If your game becomes unplayable due to a glitch in the rules, a logical inconsistency in mechanics, or even a wickedly overpowered strategy, you cannot blind play-test it. Period, point blank. Your games do not necessarily have to be good before you start blind play-testing, but they must be finish-able every single time.


3. You have functional artwork.

Blind play-testing is a test of both gameplay and communication. If your game requires certain visual cues in order to be properly tested, you need to have enough artwork to be able to properly test.

As an example, Highways & Byways starts with a drafting round in which the Byways on the board are divvied up among players. In order to test the game’s ability to communicate, I needed a completed board map. The board art was then recycled for the Byway cards, which reference specific places on the board. While this only comprises about 10% of the art in the game, the board was mission-critical to further play-testing. As it turns out, the experimental design techniques that James and I have been using work beautifully, enough there was no way to know that without putting in the time to develop art.



4. The rule book is usable.

This ties into point #1 about not needing developer input, but is important enough to warrant a separate point on my list. Your play-testers, having never played the game and having no input from you, will be learning your game from the rule book. You might have kept only a skeleton of the rule book until now, but that will not cut it during blind play-testing. Here are some resources you can look to if you need to clean up your rules:


5. Players do not get stuck.

If players get lost on the board, in the rule book, or in the decision-making process during the game, that should concern you. Players are less likely to get stuck in “analysis paralysis” with the developer right there to help them. If players do get stuck with you right there, then the problem will probably be worse during blind play-testing and you need to address it prior to blind play-testing.


6. There are multiple viable strategies available to players.

Though your game does not necessarily have to be great before starting blind play-testing, it needs to have a few workable strategic angles. If you have multiple different viable strategies, then balancing them is often a matter of tweaking rules. If you only have one viable strategy, you could be looking at problems baked into the mechanics or even core engine of your game. You generally don’t want to be messing with your game on that basic of a level once you get blind play-testers involved because they’re often hard to find.



7. You know what your game is like, but have trouble describing it.

Blind play-testing is great for finding problems, but it’s arguably even better for marketing. In addition to the fact that many of your blind play-testers will eventually become customers, you can use the things they tell you about your game as part of your future sales pitch. When someone says “this part of your game is appealing,” the odds are good that it will appeal to lots of gamers.


8. You cannot go any further in development without outside feedback.

At some point, you’ll hit a wall in play-testing that you cannot scale without bringing in fresh points of view. That is where I am right now. Highways & Byways is a few subtle tweaks away from being a solid performer on Board Game Geek. Yet I believe it would be an act of hubris to think that my family, close friends, and I are capable of spotting all the problems ourselves. You need lots of different opinions to refine a creative work so that it meets its full potential. Blind play-testing is how board game developers refine their work.



Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Highways & Byways is ready for public play-testing.
  • I’m putting together a plan this weekend on how I’ll coordinate play-testing, including where play-testers will gather, when games will take place, and how they’ll be notified.
  • In addition to the above, I need to consider single-blind and double-blind play-testing when developing this plan.
  • James is continuing to develop art for the game. None of this art is necessary for play-testing, but it will be important later on for game quality and promotional reasons.

The Art of the Play Test: Designing Tests and Keeping Records

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Board game development is incredibly iterative by nature. As a neophyte developer, you may go into a project with a clear idea of what your game is going to be like only to find that your ideas don’t work at all and that your failures have opened a whole new path for you. This is super common. The meandering, wild, iterative nature of game development is why I liken it to a journey. You grow, you change, and you find new ways of solving intractable problems. Playing your own games lots and lots before releasing them to the general public is the best way to do that.

Because the path to seeing a creative project to completion is so vague and subject to change, you can’t focus on your plan. You have to focus on your methods. You need to have a way of grappling with your game’s design in a flexible and systematic way that leaves you with a ton of data for decision making. That, my friends, is the Art of the Play Test.


Paper Test of Highways and Byways
A play test copy of my current project – Highways & Byways


It’s really important to stay organized when you start play testing. One method I’ve had success with is versioning the game every time I make a change that’s not superficial. If it changes the gameplay or user experience, I consider my game to be a new version. For Highways & Byways, it looked like this:

1: First version of the game.

2: Split roads into “hard” and “easy.” Created traffic mechanic.

3: Nixed the traffic mechanic. Implemented construction mechanic.

4: Reduced board crowding and fiddliness of construction mechanic.

5: Added Vehicle Cards.

You get the idea. Pretty much every time I had a new idea I needed to test, I created a new version. The intention was to test things one by one so that if something went wrong (and something very often does), I knew exactly what to blame. The exception is, of course, early versions where the game is borderline unplayable and multiple changes need to be made to keep it playable. Then it’s okay to make multiple edits at once.

Okay, so let’s assume you’re versioning your game. That’s a good start! That will let you keep a changelog that details what’s different between each version of your game. That is really handy to have if you find yourself wondering what you did and when you did it, or if you find yourself wanting to backtrack in development a little bit. You need to go a step further, though. You need to track every one of your play tests.

Everybody who’s made a game knows how incredibly important it is to play test. Games are based around complex, difficult-to-predict interactions. It is only through trial and error that we can confirm absolutely that our games are functional and fun. What you don’t hear people saying as much is that play testing is time-consuming and that it’s really easy to run out of people to play test with. You need to not only play test, but make every single play test productive and worthwhile.

First, start by opening up a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet or Google Sheet. For each version of your game, make a new tab on that spreadsheet named after the version number. For each play test you do for each version, you’ll want to create a new row. There is a lot of information you should try to capture when you play test. Ultimately, what you need to track is dependent upon your preferences, your game, and your business needs. Here are some questions I try to track the answers to:

Who played? You want to track whether players are new or veteran to your game. Veterans will know how to make coherent strategies. Newbies won’t. You want both groups of players to feel like they’re having a good time.

How many people played? Some games play better with fewer people. Some play better with more. The ideal number of players is often called a “sweet spot.” Tracking this will help you find your game’s sweet spot later on. It’s also good for seeing if games run too long with more players or if a certain number of players breaks the game.

Who won? You’ll want to track this for two reasons. One, you want to compare it with the player’s strategy. Two, if someone becomes an exceptional player – good or bad – you’ll want to ask them questions about how they’re playing your game.

How long did the game take? Not only will this help you keep your game from ending too quickly or running too long, it’s something you’ll have to put on the box to sell it to people.

Describe each player’s strategy. This will help you identify game-winning and game-losing strategies. You can then nerf or buff certain parts of your game as necessary.

Were there any game-breaking flaws? If so, describe them. If your game broke, you need to make a new version and try again right now. “Broken” here meaning that the game was rendered unplayable or just plain terrible for some reason.

Did you catch any minor errors? If so, describe them. Document any tiny errors or gripes that your players have. Decide what to do with them later.

Were there any ambiguities in the rules? If so, describe them. Poor communication sucks the fun out of games. If you find your players getting hung up on certain issues, you’ll want to write them down here so you can clarify your game’s rules or tweak mechanics as needed.

Did you catch any typos, graphic issues, or small errors? If so, describe them. This is obvious, but nothing says “unprofessional” like a typo.


I practice what I preach. This is my tracking method.


In Highways & Byways, I use the following columns to track my play test data:


Game Number

Players in Game

Start Space

Player Strategy



Game-Breaking Flaws?

Minor errors?





Now just because I’m using examples from my own project, that doesn’t mean it’s golden advice! Game development is very personal, and many decisions are yours to make. No one can tell you what is right for you.

Commit to the journey. Plan to throw out your plans. Be ready for changes when it’s time to change. Stay organized and take great notes. If you do this, you’ll have a great head-start in your game development project!



7 Subtle Player Behaviors You Should Notice When Play-Testing (Dev Diary: 08/04/17)

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.



I have play-testing on the brain. In the wee hours of the morning last Friday night, James Masino delivered the first serious draft of Highways & Byways board art. It was a gorgeous rendition of the disorganized mess of roads and states that I’d been play-testing with before. By using color/contrast zones, stripping all text from the board, and generally making the game look pretty, I was finally able to coordinate play-tests through Tabletop Simulator.



Tabletop Simulator Demo of Highways & Byways (Version Highway 4).


The main challenge of Highways & Byways at this point is not the core engine, the mechanics, or the rules, but rather how well the game itself can communicate with players. James and I are both informal students of behavioral psychology, so we’re always looking for the best possible ways to get our points across.

During the course of these play-tests online, I was able to watch players learn the game for the first time. After a few minutes, patterns of behavior emerged and I noticed subtle behaviors that provide information on how the game is being perceived by the players. I’ve listed seven behaviors I’ve been watching for. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but rather just a short list of lessons I’ve learned this week.


7 Subtle Player Behaviors You Should Notice When Play-Testing


1. Players spend a long time searching for something on the board.

If players spend a disproportionately long amount of time searching for something on the board or on cards, that means your game doesn’t communicate clearly. Ask your play-testers where they are getting stuck and take notes. You might need to work with your artist to find a clearer way to communicate important rules.


2. Players forget to do something on a regular basis.

If players forget to do something on a regular basis, there are two ways you can deal with the problem. The first is that you can simplify your game to where players have fewer actions that they must do. The second is that you can list everything on a reference card, telling them what to do and when to do it.


Pandemic provides a good example of a reference card.


3. When confronted with certain gameplay situations, players ask questions or check the rule book.

Sometimes this is unavoidable, especially in more complicated games. However, if you find players doing this so much that it slows down the pace of the game, you need to simplify the mechanics, create a reference card, or clarify the structure of your rule book.


4. Players spend a long time using components.

Having physically accessible components is important, even for players who don’t have any physical issues. My hands work perfectly fine, but I am loath to deal with paper money in games, shuffle decks over and over again, or move 100 tiny little punch-out pieces on a board. It gets old fast.

As this is a surprisingly complicated thing to get right, here are some articles which you might find useful if your game has problems with annoying components.


5. Players make decisions to help themselves or hurt other players.

Unlike the four behaviors above, if you see players overwhelmingly choosing to harm competitors or keep to themselves, that does not necessarily indicate a problem. In fact, unless what you find players doing completely clashes with your intentions when creating the game, any outcome is good! If a game is very “take that” or mean-spirited, then when it’s time to sell it, you pitch it to an audience who enjoys that sort of thing (like I did with War Co.) If players find that their best strategy is to take care of themselves, then that is fine, too. That’s how it goes with Highways & Byways about 70-80% of the time, so you can imagine I’ll be capturing the attention of different players than I did with War Co.


6. Players engage in table talk (or not).

The presence or absence of table talk is a good indicator of game weight. If you see players engaging in table talk, that means your game is fairly light. If players tend to go silent for long stretches of time, your game is probably heavy. People don’t tend to socialize and make strategic decisions at the same time. Your game can be lightweight or heavyweight – both are fine! Understand that different players like games of different weights.


7. Players freeze.

If players freeze, that is because they are not sure what to do. Sometimes your rules aren’t very clear, but sometimes your players are experiencing analysis paralysis. If it’s the former, you need to clean up your rules. If it’s the latter, your game may have too many decisions. You can either pare them down or accept that your game is heavyweight. Either option can be fine, depending on what direction you plan on taking the game in. Highways & Byways does not have this issue, but War Co. does suffer from it, simply because of the sheer number of options available to players.



Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • James Masino delivered board art.
  • I created test version Highway 4 in Tabletop Simulator.
  • Through my Discord community, I did some play-testing of version Highway 4 in Tabletop Simulator.
  • After a few play-tests, I changed up the “Event Card” mechanic by doing some tweaks.
  • The above changes were significant enough for me to create test version Highway 5.
  • James polished up the board a little.
  • I created test version Highway 5 in Tabletop Simulator.
  • I plan on play-testing Highway 5 this weekend through the Discord community.
  • The entire time this has been going on, I’ve been focusing on growing the newsletter and Discord community with a mix of manual outreach and Facebook ads.

What to Expect When You’re Making a Board Game: Time, Money, and Effort

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Over the last four articles of Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game, I’ve talked about a lot of things that are more complicated than you’d think. I’ve written about the unexpected depth of the board game industry. I’ve written about the surprising variety of responsibilities which a self-publishing developer must handle. I’ve written about the five levels of communication game developers must master. I’ve written about the decision-making criteria that go into choosing to self-publish instead of going through a publisher.

One message you might be receiving loud and clear by now is simple. Game development is a lot harder than you’d expect. It takes a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of hard work – both mental and emotional.


Game development is a lot like juggling when it comes to responsibilities.


It’s no accident that you’ve been receiving this message. I’ve programmed it into the undertones of my last four articles. I am consciously working to set your expectations to a reasonable level. This is because I care about you and your well-being. Get a bunch of therapists in a room and you know what they’ll say? Unrealistic expectations make people miserable.

Don’t get me wrong: game development is a lot of fun and totally worth the journey. I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting into. To help me get my point across, I’ve recruited Garret Rempel of Tricorn Games. He’s the developer who created Go Fish Fitness and successfully launched it on Kickstarter in March 2017.

His game was made with standard-issue cards, no special pieces, and was made for children. He handled the project very well. Yet even with all these factors working in his favor, it still took a lot of time and money. We’re going to explore why that is so that you get a clear-eyed look at what you’re committing to.

Garret is a sharp guy and a good game dev. That’s why I hit him up on Discord with the following message:

I’m going to be writing a post soon called “Let’s Set Expectations: Time, Money, Effort.”
It’ll be aimed at letting first-time game devs know what they’re getting into with self-publishing.
Since you successfully funded Go Fish Fitness, would you be interested in working together on this article?
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation over DMs in Discord.

Brandon: If you please, go ahead and tell me a little about yourself and Tricorn Games. How long have you been making games? What games have you worked on?

Garret: My name is Garret Rempel, I’m a 34 year old Canadian father of 4. I’m an IT Consultant with a Comp Sci degree from UWaterloo.



Garret: I have been making games all my life, from building and tweaking Amiga Basic examples from a textbook when I was 8, to making Quake2 mods in my teens, to redesigning an all new dynamic version of Axis and Allies with my friends in university. Playing, modifying, and creating games have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Garret: However it’s only been in the last year (July 2016) that I decided to try and do something formal with that hobby. I founded Tricorn Games with the aim to craft, publish, and distribute those ideas I had been tinkering with forever. As an official company, I have released…

Garret: Flipped Off! – a card game (print & play) that was primarily a study of implementing a card-flip mechanic (where cards had different effects depending on which side is face-up) that ended up being fun enough to at least make it publicly available.

Garret: Go Fish Fitness – my first Kickstarter print release. It was designed around the concept of creating a version of a simple game that kids were already familiar with, that also incorporates physical activity as part of the game. In Canada, our winters are cold and long and kids can get a bit wild when they are cooped up indoors for long stretches. The goal of GFF was to give them a fun outlet for that energy, and the end result has been received with amazing enthusiasm by our pint-sized participants.



Brandon: A longtime interest in games – that’s super relate-able to me. I feel like a lot of people find their interest in gaming in those tender childhood years, and it seems that the both of us are no exception.

Garret: Playing Marble Madness on my Amiga 500 :wink:

Brandon: Lots of N64 games and smack in the middle of Pokemon years for me

Brandon: Speaking of childhood years, do you see yourself continuing to make more children’s games or is that more of a one-off thing?

Garret: With 4 kids (ages 8, 5, 2, and 9 months), being able to make and play games with my kids is one of the driving reasons behind doing this officially. I will certainly be making more games aimed at kids of varying ages, as well as games aimed at an older or more sophisticated audience. Of the projects that I have underway, the one furthest along is a fun, lighter game from an adult perspective, but one that could easily include kids in elementary grades.

Brandon: Your house has to be a lively place with kids of those ages!

Garret: And my wife runs a home daycare – you have no idea :wink:

Brandon: Sleep must be like a long-forgotten dream by now.

Garret: Nah – all my kids were sleeping through the night by 7 weeks old, it’s less than it used to be but not unmanageable.

Brandon: In regards to your first printed game, Go Fish Fitness, how long did it take you to make it?

Garret: From concept to fulfillment, 10 months…

  • 1 month to finalize the initial design and prototype
  • 2 weeks to contact and come to an agreement with an artist
  • 1 month of vacation (he was on vacation, my wife and I were welcoming our most recent child into the world)
  • 2.5 months to complete and finalize the artwork
  • 1.5 months to prepare the print files, finalize the box art, and print sample production copies
  • 1 month to prepare for the Kickstarter
  • 1 month to run the Kickstarter
  • 1.5 months to manufacture and distribute

Garret: The vast majority of that time was spent planning, coordinating, marketing, and simply waiting. Although it took us 10 months to go from concept to delivery, it could have been done faster – but we were in no hurry to rush it out. We took our time, made sure it was exactly what we wanted it to be, and didn’t worry too much about multitasking, preparing ahead of time for things like the Kickstarter, or being efficient in our processes. That’s the advantage of doing this for fun, we aren’t beholden to dates or deadlines. I was much more interested in learning the parts of the process and getting things right than getting them out the door.

Brandon: Ten months sounds like a pretty good time frame for a game of that weight, size, and complexity to me. In fact, I did a double-take on that manufacture time before I found out you had it done on the same continent instead of way out in China like many campaigns!

Brandon: I’d like to really drill home that time frame point, though. Even if you take out vacation, that’s 9 months – I feel like that’s a surprisingly long time frame to a lot of first time devs.

Garret: Yes, the turn around time for overseas manufacturing would have been 2-3 months easily had I gone that route. But I my case the print run was small enough that I could use a boutique manufacturer locally, since there are basically none that do large scale stuff onshore.

Brandon: Let’s say I’m a brand new board game dev. Hardly know a thing about making games. I ask you how long it’ll take to publish my first game. What would you tell me?

Garret: Time frames are a tough thing to gauge, a lot depends on how efficient you are, how well you can have parallel streams working, your manufacturers schedule, and how you are going to fund it.

Garret: If we work backwards, let’s assume you are going to run a Kickstarter and manufacture overseas. Budget 4 months for manufacturing, fulfillment, and delivery to your customers using a worst case scenario of 3 months from payment to a manufacturer until the boxes are on your doorstep plus 1 month to pick & pack and mail individual packages to overseas backers.

Garret: Before that is the Kickstarter campaign – assuming the best case scenario of a successful campaign, you are looking at 1 month plus 2 weeks to receive the funds.

Garret: I strongly recommend having a complete product and manufacturing arrangement in place before even launching that Kickstarter, because the chances of being successful go up dramatically if you do.

Garret: If you want reviews available when you launch you Kickstarter (I didn’t, but it is highly recommended) you need to have your completed prototypes in a reviewers hands 6-8 weeks before you launch.

Garret: So adding up all that time – you are looking at 7.5 months between the moment that your final gold-copy prototypes arrive at your door, and your backers receive them in your mailbox. This isn’t digital distribution… you need to have patience. Most of that time is in the hands of other people, and there is nothing you can do to speed it up.


Fulfillment for Go Fish Fitness


Garret: The rest of the time you spend, is how much time it takes to develop the game, playtest, produce the artwork, playtest, write the rules, playtest, revise, and prototype. This is the part of the process that is within your ability to control. It requires a ton of work and organization, but the amount of time you spend on it is entirely up to you and how much effort you commit.

Garret: A complex game is obviously going to take a lot more work in this phase than a simple one, but it really depends on your commitment to getting it done.

Garret: The hard part, is recognizing and accepting that even if you power through it and “finish” your game in a month, or you take your time and spend 3 years perfecting it. Once you are finished, it will take nearly 8 more months to get it published.

Brandon: A very sobering thought for new devs.

Brandon: For comparison, the time between me “completing” War Co. as a game and getting it published was about 7-8 months.

Brandon: An unexpected beautiful thing about this is that you can actually run multiple projects in parallel using the downtimes of each project. (Not that I can recommend that in good conscience to newbies.)

Garret: Perhaps – if “publication” is their primary goal. For me, publication is the after-thought. I publish and make my games available for fun. My goal isn’t to make money, it’s simply to make something fun to play. If other people get the opportunity to share in that – great! But 7-8 months wait between finishing and publishing isn’t going to cause me to bat an eye.

Garret: Actually – I highly recommend doing them in parallel.

Garret: Other projects are idea factories – if you can not worry yourself about how fast you are getting things done, working on other projects can open your eyes to solving problems you have on your primary project.

Garret: Right now I have 12 projects on the go. Some are just a few lines of an idea, some are in design, others are being prototyped. A number of them will likely never see the light of day, but the simple act of working on them can break new ground and reveal better ideas that will.

Brandon: It’s interesting that you say this because while I record ideas for other games, I tend to work on one thing at a time.

Brandon: This goes to show how personal creative projects are. I figure most creators will slowly find their groove over time, seeing how much they can comfortably do at once.

Brandon: Speaking of starting as a game dev…

Brandon: When you first started game development, what surprised you the most?

Garret: It’s a tough question, but I would probably have to say the most surprising part was the repetition required in building components and the amount of effort that took. When you are creating a prototype you can cannibalize parts, sketch out cards, using a random assortment of pieces from other games. But when you need to perfectly craft and align the detail on 50+ unique components that vary in only small ways – that can get tedious. Then having to change each and every component every time you make a revision… that was the surprising part. The sheer amount of repetitive transformation that is required.

Brandon: The amount of iteration that goes into making a game can be jarring.

Brandon: This is one of the reasons I like using digital prototypes: Find/Replace and regex operations to change a bunch of stuff at once. But that can only go so far.

Garret: Especially when you are used to playing with friends where a rough prototype is more than good enough.

Brandon: Harder question.

Brandon: If I asked you how much it cost to make a game, what would you tell me? What sort of questions would you ask?

Garret: Go Fish Fitness cost me $2,845.49 to make not including my own time (which I am treating as free) and most of those costs would scale linearly. My key questions would be – what components are you using, how much artwork do you need to commission (vs doing yourself), and where are you going to have it manufactured? Those three are the biggest variables in cost per unit, and the number of copies you are going to manufacture is going to be the single biggest cost that you are going to incur.

Brandon: I agree that the three biggest determinants of game cost are physical components, artwork needs, and manufacturing.

Brandon: As far as games go, yours is close to the simplest possible in terms of materials and it still cost in the thousands. That’s important for people to realize, because manufacturing often depends on MOQs – minimum order quantities in the hundreds. Smallest print run most places will do is around 500 games, and that’s pushing it. This is not even factoring in shipping to customers or taxes.

Brandon: War Co., by comparison, was around $20,000 to create and print and it’s a card game based on six decks. It had an enormous art demand, but the lion’s share of that cost was manufacturing (covered by Kickstarter). My personal investment was about $8,000, all of which I’ve gotten back in either cash or at-cost inventory. I was really aggressive about control costs, too. It could have easily been far worse – especially on art.


War Co. Fulfillment


Brandon: If I asked you how much effort I’d have to put in, what would you say? What sort of sacrifices would I have to make, if any?

Garret: I would say that you get out of it what you put into it. I enjoyed the work that I was doing to make a game, so it doesn’t feel like there was a great deal of effort involved. The most “work” work was researching and setting up the supply chain – which was entirely new to me and so involved the most uncertainty.

Garret: Sure there is a lot of effort involved overall, you have to put in the time to make your game the way you want – but I wouldn’t say I sacrificed anything except maybe some TV watching and computer game playing to do it. I really am doing this for the fun of it, so trading one hobby for another isn’t giving anything up. Of course you can give things up if you want to try and make a living out of this kind of work, but I am not, nor am I willing to sacrifice time with my wife and kids to do it. I work on it when I can, and I am happy with the results from that level of involvement.

Garret: I think it’s more important to set realistic expectations of what you are willing to do, and what you will be able to do with that level of commitment – measure your progress as you work, and either adjust your expectations or your work habits to match. In the end, it’s a matter of being happy with accomplishing what you can with what you have.

Brandon: The time commitment can be shocking, but it’s honestly worth every hour I’ve put in. Sounds like you feel the same.

Brandon: Agreed on the supply chain, too. That’s a bear the first time around.

Brandon: Okay, so one more question.

Brandon: Is there anything you’d like to go back and time and tell yourself before you created Go Fish Fitness?

Garret: Work more on building a social following and media/reviews before launching a Kickstarter, and do more media and update prep ahead of time. Really, building the game was a fantastic process – but setting up, running, and succeeding at Kickstarter – no matter how much you read about it ahead of time – you won’t really know what it’s like until you do it once. I did a lot of prep work and a lot of things right on my KS, and I still fell down on half a dozen other facets of the process that could have made it a lot more successful.

Garret: Fortunately in that regard, I knew to set my targets small and work towards a level I knew I could achieve with the intention of using GFF as my test project so that I could learn the ins and out of Kickstarter. And I gained a great deal of valuable experience in that field as a result, which went exactly according to plan. Next time I will be aiming higher and I will have the tools I need to hopefully be successful at it a second time.

Brandon: So much of Kickstarter success depends upon business skills that go beyond the purview of simple game design.

Brandon: As you hinted at with social media nad reviews, an enormous part of the business challenge that comes along with self-publishing and crowdfunding depends upon your ability to effectively reach out to people who are interested.

Brandon: I cannot emphasize this enough. There are so many people who care out there, but they won’t run to you.

Brandon: I have a long list of things I’d do differently. My biggest area I’d change though is a variation of yours. I had a big social media following. I wish I’d had a deeper one at the time. A real community and not just a bunch of followers.

Brandon: Thank you for working with my on this guest post! It’s been a pleasure and I wish you lots of luck on your next game!

Garret: Happy to help, and thank you!

How to Fight “Tired Mode” as a Game Dev (Dev Diary: 07/28/17)

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.



This week in Start to Finish, I wrote Choose Your Own Adventure: Self-Publish or Not, an article dedicated to the benefits and pitfalls of self-publishing your game. This week, when trying to provide art directions to James, I remembered an additional pitfall that is an especially prescient and intense problem for self-publishers. I call it Tired Mode.


Photo by Aaron Jacobs. Posted to Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 License. (Source)



Tired Mode is my inelegant name for the mental state that occurs when both of the following conditions are met:

  1. You are unable to effectively perform mental work.
  2. You are unable to recognize your own inability to effectively perform mental work.

Lots of things can cause Tired Mode: physical exertion, distraction, poor diet, lack of exercise, lack of breaks, poor sleep, caffeine abuse, and so on.

The outcomes of falling into Tired Mode are myriad and range from annoying to devastating. You might sit at the computer for two hours Googling articles but not getting anything done. You might get into a loop of checking your social media over and over again. You might find yourself reading the same sentence over and over again. You might succumb to continuous and useless rework. You might find yourself typing confusing and contradictory art directions to James Masino via Discord on your iPhone while you’re on break at a day-long meeting outside of your normal work environment.

That last one happened to me on Wednesday. This episode perfectly symbolizes something in my mind which I knew for a long time already but had a hard time explaining. It is really, really hard to do a lot of mental work and keep your head on straight.


How to Fight Tired Mode


Part 1: Recognition

Part of what makes Tired Mode so devastating is condition 2: “you are unable to recognize your own inability to effectively perform mental work.” One of the best things you can do is log off the computer if you’re getting nowhere and go outside. If you’re talking to someone and you’re not making sense, be ready to say “I’m sorry, it’s been a long day and I’ll be able to give you a better answer tomorrow.”

This takes time. You’ll have to practice recognizing Tired Mode so you won’t succumb to it in the future. At first, you’ll probably only catch yourself after the fact, but that’s still good – it gives you an idea of what triggered Tired Mode and what you can avoid in the future.


Part 2: Prevention

Speaking of avoidance, the best way to fight Tired Mode is to never fight it at all. Prioritize sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Schedule time for all of these things. If you don’t take care of the basics of productivity and well-being, then the details don’t really matter.


Part 3: Smarter Scheduling

Once you get a sense for the conditions that cause you to get into Tired Mode, start scheduling your life to avoid them. If you’re a morning person, do your important stuff in the morning. If you’re a night owl, don’t do important stuff in the morning. Time management is not merely about reducing the amount of steps in a process to make it take less time, but also about making sure you time your tasks well.


Not a Part: Powering Through It

Sometimes you will have to power through Tired Mode. You shouldn’t plan on it, though. That’s reactive and not proactive – it doesn’t address the root issue and it will leave you even more depleted the next day. That’s no way to live a life.


Why Tired Mode is Worse for Self-Publishers


When you self-publish, your judgement is final. Every game mechanic, every piece of art, and every marketing endeavor ultimately comes down to your decisions. Nobody can overturn what you do. In fact, nobody else will even have a reason to dissuade you from making a bad decision. That is why it is extra important to recognize and prevent Tired Mode when you’re self-publishing.

Setting up mental boundaries is really important. Game development is a marathon process. Small problems can have a disproportionate impact on us when we are repeatedly exposed to them over and over again. Tired Mode often comes out of tiny little energy-sapping things repeated over and over again.


Tired Mode in Players


Developers are not the only ones affected by Tired Mode. Your players also experience Tired Mode. This is why I’ve spent several articles talking about accessibility in gaming. Oftentimes, you’re not just helping people with cognitive disabilities, you’re helping perfectly healthy people have fun even while they’re in Tired Mode.

While you definitely want players to mentally engage with your games, you want to remove unnecessary decisions and make your components and board communicate super clearly. The very same techniques you use to manage your time and organize your life can benefit your games, and thus, your players.


Long story short: don’t underestimate the power of fatigue. Recognize when you’re not performing. Take care of yourself. Organize your time and your life as clearly as possible. Remember that if you self-publish, there is a lot riding on it. Then take all your lessons and apply them to making better games.



Most Important Highways & Byways Updates

  • Again, I’ve been promoting the newsletter and the Discord while waiting on art.
  • The board art is nearly done.
  • Byway Card templates should be done by the time this article posts.
  • Once I have board art and Byway Card templates, I will spend an afternoon creating a pretty play-test version of Highways & Byways on Tabletop Simulator.
  • I plan on testing Highways & Byways through the Discord community.

Choose Your Own Adventure: Self-Publish or Not?

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To get the Start to Finish series going, I’ve spent some time discussing games, game development, and the amount of careful messaging that is needed to create and sell a great game. At this point, you may be beginning to have some healthy doubts about the benefits and drawbacks of self-publishing a game. After all, if you self-publish, you are responsible all these decisions and their results!




The Start to Finish series is intended to help you self-publish a game for the first time. Yet that’s not the right decision for everybody because there are so many factors to consider. Self-publishing could totally kill the magic of game development for you, depending on what drew you to it in the first place. My guide will be handy whether you self-publish or go through a publisher. But it’s time for you to ask yourself a big question:

Do I really want to self-publish?

Let’s pro/con both options…


The following excerpt was originally from Is self-publishing your board game a good idea?


Why Self-Publishing is Great

Without a doubt, the most compelling reason to self-publish your board games is the fact that you have complete creative control. You are not forced to make any edits to your work for any reason. You do not have to conform with genre standards. You can take big risks and do strange things. You do not have to prime your work for marketing and you do not have to bend to the will of companies which have their own standards and norms.

As an individual creator or a creator within a small, independent group of creators, you’ll be able to connect with others on an individual basis. You do not have to run your ideas across a company before talking to others. You can simply just do it. You can reveal as much as you want to reveal, you can completely open your game up to the public, or alternatively, keep everything hidden. People will know you by your name and not just as someone with Asmodee, Stronghold, or some other publishing company.

When it comes to money, you’ll get all of it if you work alone. If you work within a small group, you’ll walk away with a much bigger share than any publishing company would be willing to offer you. Even if you sell less, the profit margin is much, much higher.


Why Self-Publishing Sucks

Though you might be walking away with a higher percentage of the profits, the odds of making a profit are pretty slim. In fact, you’re a lot more likely to sell a lot of units if you go through a publisher. Even if you make less money per unit, you could still come out better when you’re not trying to sell the game alone or in a small group. Selling is really, really hard. It takes a lot of time to learn and it’s an entirely separate discipline from game development or any other responsibility that you will handle on a regular basis.

If you self-publish, there will be enormous demands on your time. This is true for solo developers and small groups. You do the game development. You do the play testing. You go get the art. You promote the game. You run the Kickstarter. You ship the units. You do the accounting. You pay the taxes. You are quality assurance. You are customer service. Most of your time will not be spent designing.

If the time and money issues don’t give you pause for a minute, consider the high odds of failure. Publishers might reject you, but they won’t let you publish total garbage. Your game can still flop if you go through a publisher, but it’s a lot less likely because publishers don’t want to take chances on things that probably won’t succeed. Nobody can stop a self-publisher from failing.



Why Publishers are Great

Going through a publisher may strip you of some degree of creative freedom, but it will free up a lot of money and time. Publishers handle the marketing, the selling, and often they cover the art, too. You have to spend money making a nice prototype for publishers, sure, but you don’t have to get deep into the behind-the-scenes business processes. Going through a publisher will give you the best chance for your work life to be “me and my game.” They take care of the grittiest work for you.

On top of taking care of the ugliest work and doing it better than you ever could with your limited time, the publishers will probably sell more than you would alone. Publishers have all sorts of vetting mechanisms in place that keep you from going to market with a bad game. Once you jump through their hoops, your odds of having a successful game are much higher than if you self-published.



Why Publishers Suck

Of course, the cost of having a company swing the full weight of their art, marketing, and selling staff behind your idea comes with a hefty cost. They’ll ask you to make changes. You won’t get many chances to comply, so if you don’t make the changes, they probably will for you. You have to sacrifice your creative control to some degree when working with a publisher because they have certain business practices that predate you. They are bigger than you – that’s the key thing to remember. They don’t have to listen to you, and they’re probably better off if they don’t.

However, don’t assume you’ll get to the point where they ask you to make changes. Your odds of outright rejection are very high. You’ll probably have to ask multiple publishers if they are interested. Sometimes it’s because your pitch is bad, but sometimes it goes beyond you. Publishers play by their own rules, and it’s often in their best interests not to disclose all the rules that they follow. You have to watch them, make your best guess at what they want, give them a great pitch, and be okay picking yourself up in the probable event that they’ll reject you.

Let’s suppose that your game does take off after you avoid rejection and make extensive changes. You won’t walk away with much cash. In fact, it’ll have to be a Pandemic or Ticket to Ride sort of blockbuster to really, really line your pockets. Then again, you might still be better off than you would be self-publishing.




As you can imagine from the above, the decision to self-publish or not to self-publish is an incredibly personal one. A lot of people don’t consciously realize that it is, indeed, a choice that you have to make. I write with the intention of speaking specifically to self-publishers, because that is what I know, that is what I’ve done, and that is what I like. Yet either path could lead you to obscurity or fame, destitution or wealth, happiness or misery. You have to know your own motivations and make your own carefully considered decisions.

Everybody wants freedom, or they at least think they do. The decision to self-publish comes down to one question: how much responsibility are you comfortable taking to make games? There is no wrong answer to that question.

The beauty of this is that you don’t have to make a decision today. By being aware of the alternatives, you’re already in a good situation. As you’re designing the early versions of your game, you’ll get a sense of what you like and what you don’t like about making games. When it’s time to start thinking long-term, then you’ll have to make the decision to self-publish or not.

Talking Without Words (Dev Diary: 07/21/17)

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Dev Diary posts are made to teach game development through specific examples from my latest project: Highways & Byways.

Just here for Highways & Byways updates? Click here – it will take you right to the updates at the bottom of the page.



This week, in Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game, I released Five Levels of Communication through Game Development. It’s about how to use subtleties to speak to your audience when you’re creating a game. You have very limited ways of communicating complicated concepts to your players with static cardboard and plastic, so what you imply and what you suggest through your game’s design is very important!

Turns out, this week’s development of Highways & Byways illustrates my point pretty well. I provided the following image to James Masino as a reference for creating the game’s board…


Highways and Byways: Version Highway 3
This is Highways & Byways: Highway 3 (Version 14). It’s what I’ve play-tested on up until now.


In a few short days, he turned around this early first draft of the Highways & Byways board…



Now James is by no means even close to done with his work. This is something he slapped together quickly as a demo because his real goal was just to outline the country and the road structure. We’re doing rapid prototyping. In fact, it’s somewhat unusual to commission artwork at this stage of a project, before it’s been blind play-tested, but I’m comfortable breaking this guideline for three very good reasons:

  1. It’s a map-based game and the main struggle with this game is how it communicates location-based information in an elegant way.
  2. The board art will be used for other parts of the game – so this is a high value-per-cost thing to go ahead and knock out.
  3. I can afford to bite the cost if we have to scrap it.


Now let’s talk about how James strengthened the game’s communication. He stripped the text labels completely. He stripped them from the roads and he stripped them from the states. At first I was convinced the presence of labels was a necessary evil, but we discussed a better way – which we’re experimenting with right now. Point is: removing text allows the game to talk without words, reducing the cognitive processing burden you’d feel looking at the board.

He smoothed out the curves of the byway roads, which made it look prettier and more approachable. This, too, is a good way of improving the way the board communicates.

Simplicity is really important when making games. You can’t cut all the details out of a game, but if you find yourself groaning at the complexity of something (like finding where a road is in the play-test versions of this game), you probably need to make it simpler.

For Highways & Byways, the game hinges upon being able to quickly find over a dozen roads that you need to travel. My original idea of the game would have had you look up their location by state name, using the bulk of the “Byway Card” for beautiful art. Then play-testing revealed an easier-to-use and less expensive alternative: use a picture of the road, as it is on the board, to show where a player where to find the road.

I still thought “yeah, but we need labels” just in case the pictures weren’t enough. Then it hit me. What if we were to divide the USA into different color zones like Rolling AmericaIf were to do that, the roads wouldn’t need labels at all! You could deduce the location of a road very quickly and reliably by the color of the states, the state border shapes, the shape/size/color of the road itself, and a mini-map that shows where the pictured portion on the card is relative to the United States as a whole.


This doesn’t show you the zone coloring experiment, but it’s a rough mock-up I’ve made that gets the idea across.


James and I still have a ton of experimenting to do, but this just gives you a rough idea of how much thought goes into designing simple interfaces in board games. Highways & Byways is going to be a lighter game than War Co., and while it is shaping up to have a pleasantly surprising amount of strategic meat to it, I want people to be able to pick this game up in 5 minutes. That’s my goal – 5 minutes to learn to play, 30 minutes to learn to strategize.




Speaking of communication, this is tangential but important. You need people to challenge you. Sometimes we, as creative people, get too in our own heads and get stuck on bad ideas. That’s why we need professionals and play-testers to help us create our best work. I pushed James to add labels to the board and he pushed back saying, “we need to try something else first.” We may very well wind up using labels in the end, but if this experiment with color zones goes well, the Highways & Byways board is going to be way prettier to look at.

Seek out fresh opinions and always look for a way to communicate more clearly.



Most Important Highways & Byways Updates


  • I have the earliest iteration of the board artwork from James now.
  • It was going to be ready for play-testing, but we both want to improve the way information is shared on the board, so we’re trying another experiment first.
  • Experimenting with breaking country into 7 color zones – without going too much into the rules, this could mean almost completely removing text from the game board AND reducing the text on Event Cards.
  • While James and I have this back and forth going, I’m continuing to grow my game dev Discord and the newsletter. They’ve both been unexpectedly delightful projects. They are both vastly outpacing my estimates for audience, engagement, and that intangible feeling of people caring.
  • I’m getting ahead on Start to Finish blog posts to build a backlog for when I go HAM on play-testing.
  • I reiterate what I said last week. “I don’t have a lot of sexy updates this week. It’s nose-to-grindstone, ugly, early work for the next few weeks.”