Originally written in 2018, revised in 2021.
Welcome to the inaugural post of Behind the Scenes: Lessons from a Kickstarter Board Game Publisher! In this series, I’ll be talking about aspects of board game publishing you don’t normally think about. Why board game publishing companies do things that seem weird from the outside? What can we learn from board games that are already published? What can we learn from gamers’ conversations online? I’ll be taking on all these questions and more week by week, just like I did with Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game.
Let’s kick this series off in style! For my first act, I’d like to reexamine an old article I published a year ago called How to Work Alone in the Board Game Industry. It’s an article about exactly what it sounds like. I still stand by most of what I’ve said in this article, but there is just one teensy-tiny problem with it.
I don’t think you should work alone. Simple as that.
The board game industry has changed an enormous amount in the last few years. We’re seeing more million dollar Kickstarter campaigns. We’re seeing “good ideas” go to Kickstarter and struggle to fund, if they fund at all. More and more, game developers are starting to co-publish, working in larger teams and getting more than one brand name on a box. What’s all that about and what does this have to do with working alone versus working in a team?
Trust me when I say that all these questions are related. Below, I have six reasons not to work alone. Each point builds on the last.
1. The board game industry is maturing and gamers expect more.
This is the mother of all reasons not to work alone in the board game industry anymore. As of the end of October, there are roughly 600 funded board game Kickstarters from this year. That means there are probably around 1,200 Kickstarter projects in the board game niche. Now how many more board games never showed up on Kickstarter? There could be 5,000 or 10,000 or 20,000 board games coming out in a year depending on how you count it.
We’re in a Renaissance and we’ve got selling tools available to us that would make Don Draper green with envy. The barriers to entry are really low and just about every game developer with an idea has tried to make a buck, it seems. Yet money is finite, patience is finite, desire is finite…
Gamers won’t just buy anything you make. That was never true in the first place and it’s especially untrue in a world in which we have a massive and openly accessible market (Kickstarter). Gamers are expecting more gameplay, more components, and better art in every box. And frankly, they should expect more. Gamers are consumers and consumers shouldn’t buy stuff they don’t want.
But for you, the creator, that means you need to follow market trends to meet existing gamer desires. You need to make better art. Your game needs to play beautifully. All of this takes more time, more money, and more know-how. It’s getting exceptionally difficult to make a Kickstarter-ready game alone.
2. Switching responsibilities is exhausting.
Let’s say you want to go it alone anyway. Let’s say you’re independently wealthy and that you’re a go-getter who is willing to work sixty-hour weeks because you really love games. In this scenario, it’s easier to crank out Kickstarter-ready games every few months than it is for most of my readers (who often have jobs, families, and other commitments).
From a psychological perspective, switching tasks is complicated. You lose a little time as your mind adjusts to your new challenges. Of course, variety is good for you and it keeps life spicy, but like actual spices, too much is really difficult to deal with. Do you really want to switch from design to play-testing to art direction to branding to promotion to account to taxes to legal responsibilities?
3. Your ability to master the aspects of running a business is finite.
I did everything myself for a couple of years. While it gave me a great sense of how board game development works as a holistic process, there were a lot of things I missed. When I started working with Sean Fallon, Tyson Mertlich, Ryan Langewisch, and many of my other frequent collaborators, it was a weight off my shoulders. I put in the same amount of work, but focused on fewer things. It was a weight off my shoulders. I slept better, ate better, exercised better, was a better boyfriend, and a better employee at my work.
Time is precious. It’ll slip right through your fingers if you’re not paying attention. Tick. Tock. Don’t waste your time doing stuff that other people can do better. Learn enough to understand the work that needs to be done then find someone who’s good at the work and likes the work. Then pay them – either straight up in cash or in royalties or profit shares.
4. Occasional failure is inevitable and you need to be able to rebound.
Even if you delegate perfectly, sometimes you’ll come up with an idea – alone or in a group – that is not right for the market. I did it with Highways & Byways. I’ve seen some of my friends and even major publishers do it, too. They’ll either fail to fund entirely or raise far less money than they were hoping for.
Look, sometimes you’re going to screw up. That’s alright. You’re human. The waves will still crash upon the shorelines, birds will still sing, and the Earth will continue to orbit around the Sun. You can’t see the future, and if you can, I hope you see yourself giving me a call to ask if you can be my business partner.
When you work alone, you could lose several months or even years on a single bad project. If you work with others, especially on different teams, you can have multiple irons in the fire. If one game fails, that’s okay, you’ve got another coming. In other words, you fail fast.
5. You need to build a brand.
Since board games are coming out faster and faster, the window in which individual games stay “relevant” is, on average, becoming shorter. Individual game names don’t have the staying power they once did. Consider this…
- Horizon Zero Dawn™ – The Board Game
- Trogdor!! The Board Game
- The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls
- Cthulhu: Death May Die
- Tang Garden
- Solomon Kane
These are board games that raised over a million bucks on Kickstarter in the last four months at the time this article was written in 2018. How many would you remember unprompted? Be honest.
Forget individual products for a second. You want to create brand that has staying power. I can’t tell you what Z-Man last published, but I know who Z-Man is. Same for Cool Mini Or Not.
Building a brand is not a one-person job. Effective brands require the input of a lot of people. You can take the lead, as I do with the branding of Pangea Games, but you shouldn’t just make a brand that’s a stand-in for you. It needs to be bigger than you.
6. Your time is limited.
I can’t stress this enough. Everybody in the world has the same amount of hours in a day. How many can you really work before you burn out? Twelve? Fourteen? Sixteen?
Don’t waste your time on inefficient ways of doing things. Work smart before you work hard. Delegate, get others’ input, and quit for the day when you’re in tired mode. Board game development, for a publisher, is a long process that takes years of work to succeed. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and you do yourself no good if you work yourself to exhaustion.
7. Your money is limited.
I’ve written about how you might need to bankroll your board game development. The lesson is truer today than when I originally wrote that post. Truth is, games are only getting more expensive to produce.
There are a lot of reasons for this too. Gamers are expecting nicer products, sure, and that doesn’t help. But there have been lots of material shortages and freight disruptions that have jacked up the price of board game raw materials too.
Bringing in some partners could serious ease the financial burden of creating a board game. At the same time, being able to work in a team can also help you create a better game that’s more likely to succeed in the marketplace in the long run.
8. You don’t, and can’t, know everything.
I know that this sounds superficially a lot like “your ability to master the aspects of running a business is finite.” That point is more about the fact that you cannot do everything at once and you cannot spend time learning everything you need to know.
When I say you don’t, and can’t know everything, I mean there are limits to how far your talents can take you. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t pursue your passion in a thoughtful, deliberate way. Rather, people have certain levels of natural talent in specific skillsets, and if you work as a team, everyone can play to their natural strengths.
I spent seven hours yesterday assembling a flat-pack desk because I don’t have a naturally high level of mechanical skill. And despite knowing about art history, composition, and color theory, if I tried to make board game art myself, it’d be like assembling a desk all over again.
By working with a team, everyone can play to their strengths. If you work alone, you’ll spend a lot of time compensating for your weaknesses and have a tough time mustering up the energy to play to your strengths.
It is extremely difficult to build a viable business by working alone. You need to collaborate with others to create board games that satisfy current market demands.
Do you have any experiences working alone or in a team? Share them below, I’d love to hear them 🙂