This week, in the spirit of Halloween, I wrote Performing a Board Game Autopsy: Learning from Your Mistakes. The analogy is morbid, but the concept is simple. If you spend time analyzing your failures, you can pick out specific things that you can do better next time. In April of this year, I did an autopsy on my first game, War Co.
I launched War Co. on Kickstarter in August 2016. Collectively, 146 backers raised $12,510 to bring War Co. to life. The game was published, shipped and fulfilled ahead of schedule, and I broke even on finances. By most measures, War Co. can be considered a modest success.
With the ever-critical eye of a designer, I can see a lot of extremely simple mistakes I made. It was a huge learning experience. I was way out of my comfort zone and ended up learning a ton simply because I took a big risk. I recommend you do the same because trial-and-error is often the fastest way to learn once you do the basic research. I’ve listed 16 mistakes I made on War Co. – every single one of which I had to learn by trial-and-error.
1: I did not test whether a CCG would work well in the market.
If you want to make money, you need to find out what people spend their money on. It’s as simple as that. Because War Co. started as a childhood dream, I did not do that. I made the game I felt like making, which essentially made it a passion project. Because of this, finding people who wanted the same things I wanted was an uphill battle.
This isn’t a mistake per se, but it’s important to ask yourself what’s most important: self-expression or money. They’re not mutually exclusive, but you need to pick one ideal to focus on. I chose self-expression with War Co.
If you’re going with self-expression, then do what you want and find people after you do it. If you’re going for money, you need to do market testing. Look up people’s Google searches. See which Kickstarters get backed. Make a bunch of Facebook ads and see who responds the best.
Lesson: If you’re in it for cash, test the market.
2: I did not order a prototype prior to manufacturing from the same company that printed.
This was an objectively dumb thing to do. I trusted that Print Ninja would be a good printer with nothing more than their standard-issue sample kit. It would have cost several hundred dollars to have them set up their offset printing machines to do a single copy of War Co. for my examination. In retrospect, though, I probably should have negotiated or paid for the custom sample before trusting them to print all the inventory.
The cards came out in excellent quality. In fact, Print Ninja even printed a slight overrun, giving me more inventory than expected. My issue here is entirely with my method and not with the results.
Lesson: Don’t ever take product quality as a matter of faith.
3: War Co. was designed as a six unit product instead of a single-box product.
This caused logistics and marketing problems. War Co. consists of six different decks. That means six different shippable units and a ridiculous number of potential orders. This six-deck product design caused me to pay extra for “pick-and-pack” fees with overseas suppliers, multiplied the minimum order quantity with the printer by six, and confused customers who weren’t sure which decks to buy. The funny thing is that most people ended up buying all six – so I could have conceivably put them all in a single box.
The takeaway here is that if you do alternate versions of your game, each one will become a shippable unit. If you have one game with plastic tokens and one with metal tokens, you have two shippable units. It can get complicated quickly.
Lesson: Simplify before you ship.
4: I did not even know that hobby board gaming was a market until SIX MONTHS into development.
You have no risk of making that mistake since you’re on this blog.
Lesson: Know your audience!
5: I did not have enough day-to-day board gamer interactions.
This is actually separate from the previous point. Even after finding out about the hobby board game market, I still focused primarily on an untargeted social media approach. It wasn’t until about February or March of 2016 that I started really talking to board gamers. Bear in mind that by this point, I’d already failed at Kickstarter once.
Lesson: Talk to your customers.
6: I charged way too much for international shipping.
For everyone in the USA, you don’t have to worry about shipping or customs fees at all!
For everyone in the EU, shipping for two decks of cards is $20, four decks of cards is $25, and six decks of cards is $30.
To Canada: Shipping for two decks of cards is $12, four decks of cards is $15, and six decks of cards is $15.
To Australia: Shipping for two decks of cards is $20, four decks of cards is $25, and six decks of cards is $30.
Many backers did not realize this, but the high shipping costs were a direct result of War Co. being a six unit product. That means I had to cover pick-and-pack fees as well as normal shipping fees. The downstream result was that about 80% of my backers were in the USA, as opposed to 60-65% for other similar campaigns. I left tons of money on the table with this mistake.
Lesson: Don’t charge too much for shipping.
7: I did not optimize the card layout before the campaign.
I ended up pivoting during the campaign after gathering opinions from one of the updates. People overwhelmingly preferred design B. While I’m glad we were able to correct the card layout during the campaign, launching with design A probably cost a lot of money on Day 1.
Lesson: Make your product gorgeous before you launch.
8: I did not finish the box art before the campaign.
This is an extension of the above. Pretty box art would have worked a lot better than the photo I’d initially used for my Kickstarter campaign.
Lesson: Again, make your product gorgeous before you launch.
9: My social media approach was untargeted and used suboptimal content.
Since I had no idea who I was marketing the game to for the longest time, the War Co. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook drew the wrong crowd. I was posting cool sci-fi art and corporate satire. What was conspicuously missing from my feed? Board game and card game content.
My social media accounts got big because I was very active and aggressive about outreach, but the poor targeting meant that relatively few people actually backed the campaign.
Lesson: Pick a specific target audience and make sure all your social media is designed for them.
10: My attempts at advertising were ineffective and untested.
I played around with Facebook ads, but I suffered from the same problems as above. I didn’t have a clear sense of target market and I did not polish the advertisements. As a result, very few people clicked on them. I didn’t have a systematic approach toward correcting bad ad results like I do now. I just gave up and focused on other things.
Lesson: Pick a specific target audience, test ads with small amounts of money, and change what doesn’t work.
11: I underestimated taxes.
Assets are taxable in the United States. That means all the War Co. inventory was considered taxable at the cost I paid for it. I ended up sending a $1,250 check to the White House earlier this year. Whoopsy-daisy.
Lesson: Know your federal, state, and local tax laws. Call an accountant.
12: I denied obvious and unpleasant facts.
This is one of the dangers of working alone. I was emotional about War Co. in ways that I’m not emotional about Highways & Byways. That means I took way too long to fix bad game mechanics, clean up bad ideas, and so on. I did eventually polish the game to a state which people really enjoy – it just took me way too long to correct my course when I went astray.
Lesson: Find someone who can give you hard feedback.
13: I nearly burned out.
There was a time where I was working 70 hours in a week between work and War Co. I had headaches all the time. I was tired. I was stressed. I was constantly anxious. It’s pretty obvious looking back what was going on. I was burning out.
Lesson: If you feel like crap all the time, something is wrong and you need a break.
14: I got too attached to untested ideas.
This is an extension of Mistake 12. Part of why I am so rigorous about testing my ideas now is because I know how much emotion can take me for a ride.
Lesson: Test everything.
15: I got too focused on superficial metrics.
I cared way too much about social media followers, web traffic, and what specific individuals were saying. All of these were misdirects. You have a limited capacity to care and you shouldn’t waste it on garbage. If you want money, focus on sales. If you want attention, focus on web traffic or mailing list size. If you want quality, focus on BGG rating.
Lesson: Only focus on the metrics that relate to your results.
16: I set impossible expectations on time to deliver.
Setting a schedule is one of the hardest things to get right. To some extent, you just need to know how long it takes to develop a game, market it, campaign, manufacture, and fulfill. There was a time when I thought all this would take a year. It ended up taking closer to two. Thankfully, by the time I launched the campaign, my time estimates were really accurate. However, I suffered a lot by holding myself to impossible standards of development.
Lesson: Don’t hold yourself to arbitrary deadlines.
Even with all these little failures listed out in plain text, I want you to understand something. Taking calculated risks is one of the best things you can do. Trial-and-error is a fantastic teacher. Book learning, blog posts, online courses, and all that jazz can only go so far. Go out there, make mistakes, analyze your mistakes, and do better next time. Embrace the journey.
Got any stories of your own mistakes you’d like to share? Leave a reply in the comments 🙂
Most Important Highways & Byways Updates
- I’ve updated the game to version I-3.
- I’ve had more people blind play-test it.
- The jury’s still out on whether the post-Protospiel updates are enough to finalize the game.
- James’ art deliveries continue to be fantastic. Would you expect anything less?