Wing It Board Game - What Do Board Game Retailers Want?

What Do Board Game Retailers Care About the Most?

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When you’re making your first board game, retail distribution is probably not top of mind. Many creators choose to focus on making a brilliant game, well play-tested, with great art, and good Kickstarter potential. And that’s fine! It just means the question of “what do board game retailers care about the most” goes unanswered for a long time.

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No longer will it go unanswered! In my game development experience, I’ve never sought out retail distribution. My business model has been one of eCommerce and passive revenue. But even still, I feel that not talking about what board game retailers want is a glaring omission in Start to Finish.

Then Molly Zeff cold emailed me. Her board game, Wing It, is in an estimated 300-330 stores across the world. I don’t normally answer cold emails, but her story is just too good to leave untold. And that’s how we wound up on an enjoyable video call for over 2 hours!

Below, you will find an edited transcript of our video call, transcribed by Scribie. The original call was over 30,000 words in length but was so information-rich that I’ve split it into three posts. What follows has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Who is Molly Zeff?

Before this transcript begins, Molly and I were chatting about anything and everything. For simplicity, the earliest text posted here from the transcript starts about 30 minutes into the call.

Molly Zeff, left

Brandon: How did you get into the board game business?

Molly: I was 26. Your age, so it’s kind of funny that you mentioned that. I was literally turning 26 when I somehow got the idea in mind that  I needed to either write a book or invent something to help pay for business school.

I knew I was planning to go back to business school in three to five years and I needed a way to pay for it. So I started writing a book on how to fail well.

I like to think that I’m really good at failure. I’m really good at finding ways to move past it. I’m the kind of person who might say like, “Okay, if I’m gonna have to pay $300 per month for the next few months [because of a car accident], I wanna try to figure out how I can make $300 more or spend a little less.”

Anyway, I started writing a book on how to fail well and then I thought… having barely gotten into the book, “I need to fail more. I need to wait ’til I’m in my 50s and I’ve failed a lot more.”

So I stopped writing the book.

First a book, then a board game

Molly: I’d always liked board games, having played them growing up, especially throughout my teenage years and then into my early 20s.

I’d always liked board games, having played them growing up, especially throughout my teenage years and then into my early 20s. So I thought I would invent a board game based on the book Would You Rather.

No idea what reminded me of it, maybe a move, ’cause I was moving to Boston for a new job. I remembered the book or came across my book, “Would You Rather?” And I realized “Would You Rather?”, which asks ridiculous questions like, “Would you rather have a ketchup dispensing navel or a pencil-sharpening nostril?” is all made up by adults just sitting around.

I pictured a bunch of adults just sitting around a room and being weird. And I thought, “I could be weird for a living, and I’m not really using that.”

The questions from the book posing these ridiculous situations that could happen, made me realize, what if there was a game that involved these ridiculous situations and ways to get out of them? And I thought of using objects to get out of them. So I called my friend Jon, whom I apparently hadn’t seen his entire first year in Boston,  – and I said, “Jon, do you wanna invent a board game together?” We had no experience in the game industry.

We spent 3.5 years working on it as a hibby, meeting occasionally. We finally got to a point in 2014 when he said, “I think we’ve done enough, we can start playtesting it.” So we both brought a lot of our friends over for a big meetup at my place, and we started testing it.People were laughing. You could say it tested well ’cause we obviously ended up creating it.

Brandon: So eventually people started playing it, you saw them smiling and you saw them having fun and you’re like, “okay, we might actually be onto something here, maybe we can market this.”

A note at this point: Wing It is now in 300-330 stores worldwide.

What do board game retailers care about the most?

Brandon: I have a different question, somewhat related.

Getting into stores is one of the most mysterious parts of the industry to first-time board game creators. And even myself personally, I have never actually made a play for physical distribution. I’ve always kept it e-commerce, simple, and passive.

For a long time, I’ve wanted to write about “how you actually get your game in a real physical board game store.” And that’s what you’ve done with Wing It. My first question on that note is: what have retailers told you they want in a game?

Molly: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I’m gonna change a little…

Brandon: Go for it. That’s the beauty of the written word, we can always tweak it.

Cards in Wing It
What do board game retailers want to see in a company?

Molly: Yeah, you said “in a game” and I’m gonna say more like, “in your games or in your company.” [Retailers want to know] when you create a game, even if you’re just selling one game, that you are going to be able to keep the game in print if it’s successful. They often want to be able to get your game from distributors and know that it won’t be a one-and-done print run, ideally. A lot of small indie companies only have one printing of a game, and then they start to have another print run of another game. The problem is that, as one retailer explained to me, if your game sells well at my store and people keep wanting it, but then you print it once and don’t print it again, I just found a popular game that I can’t get back in stock.

Brandon: Mm-hmm.

Molly: A few retailers have expressed that they don’t wanna bring on a game that’s done really well on Kickstarter because then it feels like anyone who wants it already has it. Sure, you can break it down for them and show them that people didn’t buy your game in their city, or only a few did. So that it’s clearly not an issue. But that would mean getting them into an individual, in-depth discussion in the first place.

So I had a retailer really early on say that I shouldn’t mention that I did a Kickstarter because they didn’t necessarily want games from Kickstarter. So I’m going to say it’s better if you haven’t been really successful on Kickstarter. Isn’t that funny? Like my friends, one of my friends, has made a game that did really well on Kickstarter.

He blew it out of the water. Over $100,000 with what, I believe, was his first game. And that is important to mention only because if his second one  doesn’t do as well, I think his chances in retail are better. It’s okay to have had a Kickstarter, but you just actually don’t wanna have done super well. This is just my opinion for designers and indie publishers who ALSO want to get into retail.

Brandon: You want to make it look like your game is already validated by the market, like people really care, but you don’t wanna make it look like you’ve already sold every copy you ever could.

Molly: Right, that’s a good way to frame that, value in the market, proving that there IS a market is a good initial point.

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What do board game retailers expect in terms of genre?

Brandon: I’m also wondering, are there certain genres that they tend to prefer, or certain box sizes and art styles that they tend to like?

Molly: I think that most of the bigger indie retailers I’m seeing, specifically indie retailers, want a broad variety, a really broad variety of games in their stores.

Some of the smaller shops are the ones that may feel big but they’re mostly a Magic shop or mostly Magic and RPGs. Those stores have a crowd that comes every week and plays Dungeons and Dragons or people who come in and trade Magic cards every week or play Magic. Those shops probably won’t want as many or need as many party games, just because that’s not their crowd.

Those stores will not be as much of your market [if you make party games or even if you make board games. They often have pretty small board game sections]. I think also at this point, I feel like games that are inappropriate, people used to call them Cards Against Humanity clones, and also things like Telestrations After Dark or Adult Taboo…they’ve become so common that I think adult games are kind of saturated It doesn’t mean you can’t sell your adult party game, but it may be an uphill battle because it’s such a crowded field.

One of the comments, the really positive comments I hear from retailers about Wing It is that it is for all ages, that people can take it wherever they want [as far as being inappropriate], and they do, but it is a family-friendly party game. And some shops, some stores just want to be more focused on family-friendly games with a broad appeal. So there are definitely stores… I’m not going to say this is common among retailers, but there are stores that don’t want to stock games that aren’t family-friendly ’cause of the image they want to keep.

Brandon: Mm-hmm.

Molly: So, I wouldn’t say that’s one thing that retailers want, but it’s something that a segment of retailers want for that kind of store.

Brandon: Yeah actually, I have a story about that… I know a company called Grandpa Beck’s Games and they’ve got some really big stuff on Amazon. And their whole model is basically just “make a game that the whole family can play” – something light, something that’s got some strategy to it, but isn’t like a mass-market game. That’s their whole plan.

And I feel like that is just the… One of the less-served markets out there. Your hobby gamer stuff, there are so many games for that. Mass market, it’s really hard to break into. And like you said, adult games, party games, those tend to be pretty saturated; but a family game, you don’t see as many people trying to make them.

Molly: Oh, interesting. Yeah, you do see a pretty good-sized party section, but it is often a section of the store, it’s like, here’s the party game shelves…

What do board game retailers expect from the box?

Molly: Retailers also like you to have a pretty good box size. Box size actually really matters in retail. Have you heard this too from people, about box size?

Brandon: I’ve kind of inferred it because… Just by looking at shelves and noticing the relative similarity of things that are on there.

Molly: Bigger boxes add to perceived value and people feel like they’re getting more. And in fact, if we create a non-exclusive, mass-market version of Wing It for this deal that I’m in process of making, it’ll be a bigger box.

Brandon: That is really interesting. I’m gonna insert something in here because, as publishers, you are incentivized to make a bigger box because that’s the kind of thing that catches somebody’s eye on the shelf… ’cause you’re walking by, it has to catch your attention. And it also adds to perceived value. They pick it up, it feels heavy, it feels like there’s something in there. “Wow, this is only $25?” That kind of thing.

Now, if you were an eCommerce company, you would wanna do the exact opposite. You would want to make the lightest, smallest game that you possibly could so you could put it in a tiny package and put the lowest amount of postage on it and get it in the mail cheaply. And so I just think that’s interesting, because traditional retail and eCommerce have different incentives as far as box weight and size.

Molly: That’s a good point. The retailer wants the box to stand out on the shelf. But the people paying to send the games from the warehouse obviously are going to pay more for a bigger box. Also bear in mind, when we sell direct [to retail], we cover their shipping.

We will pay shipping even with a minimum order of two. People are surprised at our minimum order.

Brandon: So that’s interesting. I imagine for small quantities, you’d probably send these by just mail, right? For the big shipments, do you have to coordinate freight for that?

Molly: Usually FedEx or USPS. Normal shipping methods.

Brandon: Okay, so nothing complicated, no wooden pallets, no less than truckload shipments, nothing like that?

Thank goodness, you’re saving yourself a big headache.

What else do board game retailers want?

Molly: Now that I’ve told you some of my answers, I wanna scroll up and just see what Mark Carter, who is a retailer at Guf Games in Australia, says. He is the one who got us into Australian distribution last year. He sent me a whole list of things he looks for – let me find it.

Okay, there we go.

He wants to know what other sales channels you’re using. If you’re selling to Amazon and that’s dropping the price, retailers won’t want to do business.

Brandon: Yeah, that’s a really good point. That would make retailers nervous.

Molly: Yeah, he said, and I quote, “If you are selling directly on Amazon, this is a big turnoff.”

I would say the demo copy is extremely important. If they want to be able to promote it at the store level.

He asks if you’re going to cons and raising awareness, if you’re marketing…

Oh here,’s a good one: are you putting money behind your game? Are you supporting your game? One complaint I’ve heard from a retailer about a publisher who does pretty well, I mean it’s a pretty big publisher, is that they don’t really put the work in behind their games.

Mark also mentioned a way to reorder… so I’ll say that stability of supply is his word for the reality that they want to make sure you’re not going to run out really soon. If your game is really popular but they can never get it again then they’re disappointed.

Brandon: Yeah, of course, that would be a turnoff for a retailer as well. There’s nothing worse than something sells like hotcakes and you have no more of it in stock.

Molly: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And here’s one last one, I just feel like it’s really important, just to be nice, just to be a good pleasant person to work with.

Like some days I’m making calls to 20 stores. You just wanna be sarcastic, or like, not have to be 100% on and upbeat and friendly even at those times when, say, a store has had a demo copy they wanted and it’s been 8 months and they found it unopened while on the phone with you.  But as one retailer said, he doesn’t have to work with you if you’re a jerk. There are 10 games coming out every day. So, he doesn’t have to work with you if he doesn’t want to.

Brandon: Pretty much, kindness and patience go a long way. Especially when you’re talking about retailers who can choose to buy whatever they like.

Final Thoughts

Molly has a lot to teach us about the way board game retailers think. Show proof that people want your game but the market isn’t saturated, put in a big box, and find the right store (for your game’s audience). Back your own ideas, make sure you can reprint the game if needed, and – last but not least – be nice!

Stay tuned for parts two and three of this interview over the coming weeks. We’ll be talking about how you can get your board game into your very first store and how conventions can help you do it.

Molly's latest game, The Million Dollar Doodle, is live on Kickstarter!
Use the hive-mind to design brands. Pitch your ridiculous companies.
Win a million dollar investment or crack up trying.

Top 10 Board Games for Christmas 2019 (and Why They’re Popular)

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It’s that time of the year. The leaves have almost all left their trees, most of my family is still in a food coma from last Thursday, and – oh yes – the Black Friday shopping has begun! As you might expect, this is also the time of year when a lot of people to go to Google and type in “top 10 board games for Christmas 2019.”

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While I typically write articles strictly for board game creators, today is a little different. If you’re reading this, I’m betting that you’re asking one of two questions:

  1. What do I buy for the board gamer in my family?
  2. Why are certain games popular right now?

To answer both of these questions, I took a snapshot of Board Game Geek – Mecca of all things board games – on Saturday, November 30. I started with the trendiest games and worked my way down the list, scratching off anything that wasn’t on sale right now online. What remains is a top 10 list of games you can buy (or back-order) right now that are already drawing the attention of board gamers.

With all this in mind, let’s get right to it!

10. Brass Birmingham ($50.59 on Miniature Market)

The original board game Brass is one of the most highly regarded board games of the modern era. It came out in 2007 and people were still talking about it a decade later.

Enter Brass: Birmingham. It’s got all the elements of the original that gamers liked – the economic strategy and dynamic scoring – plus some new mechanics carefully chosen by the original creator to make the game even better. In particular, they’ve added a sixth action called “Scout” in which you discard cards and take a wild location and wild industry card. They’ve also added some new industry types, which helps add variety to the game.

If you or someone in your family is looking for a challenging board game in the $50 range, this is an excellent choice!

9. Everdell ($54.94 on Amazon)

I’ve written at length about Everdell before and why it’s a good game. Long story short, it’s got a cute fantasy theme with really well-executed worker placement mechanics. It’s a wonderful mix of gritty strategy and charm that’s reminiscent of Root.

8. Nemesis ($119.99 on Miniature Market)

In many ways Nemesis is the polar opposite of Everdell! It’s a sci-fi survival horror story heavily inspired by the Alien franchise. The Board Game Geek page does a great job of explaining why Nemesis is so interesting…

Nemesis is a semi-cooperative game where you and your crew-mates must survive on a ship infested with hostile organisms. To win the game, you will have to complete one of the two objectives dealt to you at the start of the game and get back to Earth in one piece. You will find many obstacles on your way: swarms of Intruders (the name given to the alien organisms by the ship AI), the poor physical condition of the ship, the other players that will have their own agendas and, sometimes, just cruel fate.

7. Godtear (Eternal Glade Starter Set, $49.99 + shipping on Amazon)

Godtear is a hex-based tabletop skirmish board game for two players. The whole purpose of the game is to collect the tears of fallen gods. The game is driven by different scenarios, each of which have their own rules.

What you have here is a classic, gorgeous fantasy game that never feels stale. That’s the magic of having a scenario-based game – tons of variety and tons of replayability.

6. Terraforming Mars ($45.00 on Amazon)

Terraforming Mars has been considered a new classic since the day it first came out. For all its flaws, I love Terraforming Mars – it gives players more opportunities for creative play than just about any other game I’ve seen.

The basic idea is that you and all your opponents represent different corporations trying to tame the red planet. It’s the only game I know where you can throw a meteor at a planet to purposefully cause global warming so you win.

5. Marvel Champions: The Card Game ($74.99 on Amazon)

There are few companies that have as much raw material for interesting stories as Marvel. You can see that play out in Marvel Champion: The Card Game. Again, I’ll borrow from the Board Game Geek page to describe the game.

Iron Man and Black Panther team up to stop Rhino from rampaging through the streets of New York. Captain Marvel and Spider-Man battle Ultron as he threatens global annihilation. Do you have what it takes to join the ranks of these legendary heroes and become a champion?

Marvel Champions: The Card Game invites players embody iconic heroes from the Marvel Universe as they battle to stop infamous villains from enacting their devious schemes. As a Living Card Game, Marvel Champions is supported with regular releases of new product, including new heroes and scenarios.

4. Cthulhu: Death May Die ($80.89 on Amazon)

I don’t know if you can tell, but this game has got a bit of an edge to it. Cthulhu: Death May Die feels like it crawled straight out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel. It’s a cooperative game where you and your fellow players are investigators seeking the summon the Elder Gods. Also, you start the game completely insane.

This is an intense game, but with so many thematic miniatures and a total commitment to theme, this game has worked its way up The Hotness list and stayed there for a while.

3. Tapestry ($75.73 on Amazon)

Some of the most well-liked board games of all time are civilization games. One of the most well-liked board game designers is Jamey Stegmaier.

Jamey Stegmaier made a civilization game.

Enough said.

2. Gloomhaven ($86.50 on Amazon)

If you’ve ever stumbled across my greatest board games of all-time list, you know Gloomhaven is at the top. Seriously, it has been #1 on the Top 100 board games list on Board Game Geek for a long time now.

Gloomhaven is so massive that it’s hard to begin to describe why it’s good. It’s heavily story-driven, huge in size and scope like Through the Ages, and it has great components. The theme, backed up by lots of story, is incredibly in tune with gamers’ desires for rich, lived-in fantasy worlds. This game captures what gamers love about literally every other game above it in this article. Gloomhaven truly is the apotheosis of gamer desire.

1. Wingspan ($59.99 on Amazon)

As we said before, new Jamey Stegmaier games are a big deal. Wingspan, however, has been particularly popular. On the Stonemaier Games website, it’s described as a “competitive, medium-weight, card-driven, engine-building board game.” It also won the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres award, which is a really big deal.

If that weren’t enough, it’s also got a ton of different components – cards, miniature eggs, wooden dice, a birdfeeder dice tower, action cubes, and more.

Long story short, it’s got mechanics that gamers like, gameplay that critics adore, and physical pieces to make gamers feel good about their purchase. It’s a win all around!

Final Thoughts for Buyers

There are so many great board games for Christmas 2019 out there! Any game on this list is an excellent choice – all you have to do is narrow down by price point and theme. The board gamer in your family is sure to be happy!

Final Thoughts for Gamer Designers

Gritty, complex games continue to dominate Board Game Geek! If you want to capture the hearts and minds of the most hardcore board gamers, make a smart, complex game with a big box and a lot of components. The BGG community does not shy away from the intellectual challenge! If they are the market you want to pursue, take some lessons from these games – you’ll be glad you did 🙂

Title photo credit: By PZS69, CC-BY-SA 2.0 license. Source:

6 Reasons Escape Rooms Will Make You a Better Board Game Designer

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Handcuffed to my manager, I reached into the toilet to find a small key. We unlocked the jail cell and eventually broke out of prison with two minutes to spare.

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The unwitting reader may suspect this was a sordid affair unbecoming of a Fortune 500 company. In reality, it was my first experience with an Escape Room. I’ve since been in many more for work and family functions alike.

Escape Rooms will make you a better board game designer. This is partly because Escape Rooms are everything that board games aspire to be – complex problem-solving games that appeal to a wide audience and provide a remarkable physical experience. You can’t capture the true experience of an Escape Room in a box (though some have tried), but you can learn from them, take elements from them that work, and apply them to your future designs.

With this in mind, here are six reasons I believe that Escape Rooms will make you a better board game designer.

1. Escape Rooms are master classes in theme.

Board games often run the risk of having themes that feel pasted-on. For as much as we talk about theme-mechanic unity here, it’s an ideal to be pursued and which is seldom truly met. To have a truly immersive theme is the dream of many board game designers.

Fair enough, board games can still be great even if the theme feels watery. But then you have Escape Rooms. In them, everything is a part of the game – the dimensions of the room, every prop, and every symbol. Escape Rooms are an entirely different medium in which wholly original theme ideas can be played out. You can’t use many of them in board games, but they are, at the very least, idea factories for those who prefer to create games with cardboard and plastic.

2. The appeal of Escape Rooms is in the physical experience.

Part of the reason Escape Rooms appeal to people who don’t normally play games or solve puzzles is the physical experience. You are locked in a room and you have to use your wits to escape. Every prop, every errant number or symbol scrawled on the wall or the floor, and every strange gadget could have a purpose.

Board games often run the risk of feeling overly cerebral. You have to use your imagination to see the battles play out or feel the stresses of the theme. This is not the case with Escape Rooms, which force theme upon you by means of physical experience.

Granted, Escape Rooms and board games are totally different kinds of experiences. What can a board game designer do to capture even one-tenth of the Escape Room magic? I have two answers to that: use the props to get good ideas for components, and pay attention to unique tactile experiences and see how you can use simple components to take a game to the next level. (Exit games are a good example of what I’m referring to.)

3. Escape Rooms must allow for different viable winning strategies.

By their very nature, Escape Rooms tend to attract a wider audience than simply gamers. The people who wind up playing do so for anything ranging from corporate retreats to family getaways to an unusual date. For this reason, the game has to accommodate a variable player count that can range anywhere from 2 players to 8 or more.

What this results in is a decentralized gaming experience that allows different viable strategies. Yes, certain riddles must be solved in order to escape the room. This cannot be avoided because it is the nature of the game. However, different people can focus on different puzzles. They can freely float from puzzle to puzzle with no real penalty.

In short, gamers have a lot of true agency. They’re not forced to do something they don’t want to do. If they get stuck, they can try something else.

4. Escape Rooms have multiple built-in mechanics that ensure a variable difficulty level.

The ability to work on different puzzles or switch between them is one mechanic that allows players to change the difficulty level of the game. Another mechanic, present in every Escape Room I’ve ever been in, is the ability to ask for hints. In most cases, you are allowed three free hints that you and your team can ask for whenever things get stale. After that, you may receive additional hints with a time penalty.

The hint system is fantastic. There is nothing quite as frustrating as a game that forces you to solve a problem that you’ve lost interest in. This is especially true with people who don’t play a lot of games or solve a lot of puzzles in the first place. It’s an engagement killer. The hint system completely bypasses this.

By allowing players to change strategies on the fly and to request hints when they’re stuck again gives players real agency. This is often what is missing in board game designs, and seeing meaningful choices implemented well will make you a better board game designer.

5. Escape Rooms have built-in time constraints that keep them from becoming stale.

Your typical Escape Room is sixty minutes at a maximum. I think the time limit is a part of what keeps these games fresh. Without the time limit, you would not have the sense of urgency and you would run the risk of people just wanting to go home.

Built-in time constraints are not always sensible in board game design. In fact, they’re usually not. But if your game runs long and your audience doesn’t explicitly want that, then cut the play-time. A short but great board game is like a beloved EP by your favorite band. A long but uneven game is like a double album that you never want to listen to again.

6. Escape Rooms are still a novelty.

It’s no secret that large sections of the board game market run on novelty or fear of missing out. While there are plenty of deep criticisms which one can aim at monetizing FOMO, the truth is that human beings are hard-wired to seek novelty.

Escape Rooms started in 2007. Part of why they are interesting is because they’re new. When you’re making board games, you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, the “second but better” approach is often more reliable.

However, you should generally stay on the “early adopter” side of the design curve. Your game is a lot more likely to please the most well-connected board gamers and stay fresh for a long time if you do something relatively novel. In other words, don’t just make another farming game with different colored cubes for resources!

Final Thoughts

Escape Rooms will broaden your board game design horizons. The medium in which Escape Rooms take place is so fresh and innovative, it’s hard to play one without walking away with at least one game design idea. Not to mention, they’re just plain fun!