8 Reasons You Shouldn’t Make Board Games Alone

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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.

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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).

Should you?

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…

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 🙂

The 10 Best Board Games of All Time and What We Can Learn from Them

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There are over 100,000 board games in existence. The vast majority have been forgotten and buried in the sands of time. A handful have stood out head and shoulders among the rest, working their way up to the top 10 games on Board Game Geek. This is a truly staggering achievement because pleasing Board Game Geek users is no easy task!

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Today, we’ll focus on the best of the best board games and reflect on why they’re so great. Or, at the very least, why the dedicated gamers of Board Game Geek consider them to be the best board games. By studying the greats, we – as designers and publishers – can create better board games for future generations.

Honorable Mention #1: Terra Mystica
best board game - terra mystica
Photo by kilroy_locke on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

The hardcore gamers who rate games on Board Game Geek are, in their heart of hearts, intellectuals looking for a challenge. Games allow us to transport to distant times and places, forgetting our day-to-day problems by letting us focus on innumerable in-game decisions.

Terra Mystica does this beautifully. It’s one of the heaviest, brainiest, most complex games to achieve notoriety. It’s a perfect information euro with a lot of rules and a lot of ways to play. It does this with a theme of perennial interest to gamers – building civilizations. In these ways, Terra Mystica was early to rise in the current board game boom – bringing heavy games back into vogue.

Honorable Mention #2: Great Western Trail
best board game - great western trail
Photo by W Eric Martin on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

Great Western Trail isn’t a trailblazer if you read the reviews. It didn’t invent new ideas. It didn’t bring anything completely novel to the table. Yet it succeeds by the merit of being generally well put together. That’s no backhanded compliment – “second but better” is genuinely important in this world. It gave us Google and iPhones.

By generally well put together I mean it feels satisfying, doesn’t introduce new elements but marries them exceptionally well. You can see this reflected in the 9 and 10 scores of Board Game Geek, where people repeat some variation of “I really can’t explain it” and rattle off mechanics while trying to explain it. That’s the way empirical, logical, or intellectual people speak when they’re in love. That tells you all you need to know.

Honorable Mention #3: Scythe
best board game - scythe
Photo by Hilaryg on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. (Source)

In its own right, Scythe is a fantastic engine-builder with an engaging theme. It really nailed the 1920s alt-future aesthetic while giving gamers a complex game to analyze and replay.

Yet Scythe cannot be decoupled from Jamey Stegmaier, the generous spirit behind the Kickstarter lessons blogScythe is not the first home-grown game to succeed, nor is it the first home-grown game to make millions. The visibility of the project just made it feel like it was, and that’s important. The biggest thing we can learn from Scythe comes from the fact that it is proof that small publishers can make it.

10. Twilight Struggle
best board game - twilight struggle
Photo by killy9999 on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. (Source)

Speaking of stories, you can’t get much more interesting than the utterly insane forty-odd year stretch of time where the USA and USSR had nukes pointed at each other. The concept is so absurd that Stanley Kubrick made a comedy movie out of it. Twilight Struggle masterfully captures the tension of that era in the best wargame ever designed.

It has incredibly clever area control and hand management mechanics. It has depths that have led to 400 page strategy guides on the internet. It’s complex, engaging, and never seems to play the same way twice. Yet it always goes back to tension. Twilight Struggle is a masterpiece of capturing tension in games.

9. Star Wars Rebellion
best board game - star wars rebellion

Star Wars Rebellion is the only high-dollar intellectual property that you will see on this list. Board gamers are rightfully skeptical of the quality of games that come from movie studios and video game companies. Yet Star Wars Rebellion shows that big money can produce fantastic games that are really high-quality from a gameplay standpoint.

It also marks a turning point in board game storytelling. People on Board Game Geek who give this game a 9 or 10 keep saying “Star Wars in a box.” Star Wars is an incredibly enduring franchise based around story-telling beats that go back to ancient mythology. Board gaming, as abstract and mathematical as it can seem on the outside, is dependent upon story, too, whether we build it into the game or not. This game’s success proves that people want stories in their games.

8. Gaia Project
best board game - gaia project
Photo by W Eric Martin on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

As if Terra Mystica weren’t a fantastic achievement in board gaming in its own right, Gaia Project is a souped up version IN SPACE. It doubles down on everything that made Terra Mystica brilliant – the complex decision making and the epic theme of expanding civilization. Then it marries the game to a theme board gamers have demonstrated time and time again that they love – science fiction.

Gaia Project is a picture-perfect study on how to “fix something that ain’t broken.” The game’s existence is proof that the creators were listening to feedback on a deep level, addressing gamers’ basic needs while taking the game in a surprising cosmic direction.

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7. Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization
best board game - through the ages
Photo by JanaZemankova on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. (Source)

Through the Ages was a smash hit when it came out in 2006 and was an even bigger smash hit when it was reissued in 2015. Like Terra Mystica and Gaia Project, it is truly epic in size and scope. It is a long, multi-hour game that spans thousands of years.

The mechanics are great, the decisions complex, and the gameplay overall is a blast. That’s not why it’s so enduring, though, at least not in my opinion. It’s a matter of size and scope. There is something deeply awe-inspiring about taking a civilization from antiquity to modernity. All the beauties of developing culture and all the ugliness of waging wars is captured within this game. It’s really kind of jaw-dropping, even more so because of the fundamental – if exaggerated – truth of its basis. This is not some sci-fi fantasy world. This is the world in which you and I live, work, and play.

6. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion
Photo by Daniel Mizieliński on Board Game Geek under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed Gloomhaven, Jaws of the Lion was released in 2020. It holds a mighty 8.9 on Board Game Geek at the time I’m writing this and has a formidable position at #6 on the top board games of all time list.

I haven’t played the game myself, so I’ll borrow the description of it from Board Game Geek to share with you.

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a standalone game that takes place before the events of Gloomhaven. The game includes four new characters — Valrath Red Guard (tank, crowd control), Inox Hatchet (ranged damage), Human Voidwarden (support, mind-control), and Quatryl Demolitionist (melee damage, obstacle manipulation) — that can also be used in the original Gloomhaven game.

The game also includes 16 monster types (including seven new standard monsters and three new bosses) and a new campaign with 25 scenarios that invites the heroes to investigate a case of mysterious disappearances within the city. Is it the work of Vermlings, or is something far more sinister going on?

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is aimed at a more casual audience to get people into the gameplay more quickly. All of the hard-to-organize cardboard map tiles have been removed, and instead players will play on the scenario book itself, which features new artwork unique to each scenario. The last barrier to entry — i.e., learning the game — has also been lowered through a simplified rule set and a five-scenario tutorial that will ease new players into the experience.

Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion description on Board Game Geek
5. Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition)

I’ve spoken about Twilight Imperium at length in a different article, but it’s such a good game that it bears mention again here. This is a long, complex, expensive board game. There are a ton of different components and it can take up to eight hours to play.

What is the appeal of a game that monstrous in scale? Simply put, Twilight Imperium is a game that you can completely immerse yourself in. That’s the appeal – everything else disappears around you as you play it because the fantasy world is so well fleshed-out.

4. Terraforming Mars
best board game - terraforming mars

Terraforming Mars was a smash hit when it came out and the hype has never died down since. For good reason, too. It is a truly fantastic game and we have a lot to learn from it.

I went back and forth in my own head thinking of how best to describe what we can learn from this game, but I think Dr. Michael Heron at Meeple Like Us says it best in his own review:

I love this game – it’s fun, full of fascinating mechanisms and satisfying decisions.     It’s collegiate in its competition while also being cut-throat in its communality.    It rewards creative play more than any game I’ve seen in a long time.

3. Brass: Birmingham
Photo by d0gb0t on Board Game Geek under the CC-BY 3.0 license. (Source)

Brass: Birmingham is a recent strategy to the well-loved original game Brass, which came out in 2007. It’s an economic strategy game where you can take two of the following six actions every turn:

  1. Build – Pay required resources and place an industry tile.
  2. Network – Add a rail / canal link, expanding your network.
  3. Develop – Increase the VP value of an industry.
  4. Sell – Sell your cotton, manufactured goods and pottery.
  5. Loan – Take a £30 loan and reduce your income.
  6. Scout – Discard three cards and take a wild location and wild industry card. (This action replaces Double Action Build in original Brass.)

Economic strategy games are a mainstay of the board gaming world, and Brass: Birmingham has been considered by many reviewers to be an instant classic. In short, it’s the best possible implementation of a crunchy, complex, problem-solving game in a beloved genre.

2. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
best board game - pandemic legacy season 1

Pandemic Legacy is already built upon the incredibly durable and interesting mechanics of Pandemic, the international sensation of a game that inspired so many spin-offs. That alone would make it a solid game in its own right, but Pandemic Legacy takes in one step further. It was one of the first major legacy games, promising players an engaging story that unfolds over time. This paved the path for future legacy games, which is yet another reason to enjoy it.

1. Gloomhaven
best board game - gloomhaven

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.

5 Ways to Vet Your Board Game Before Launching a Kickstarter

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Everybody wants to be a board game designer these days. We have the beautiful fortune of working in a hot industry that’s always bringing in fresh talent. With fresh talent comes fresh ideas. With fresh ideas comes many more rotten ideas created in the process.

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Nobody wants to launch a Kickstarter campaign only to have it fail. Many board game designers are competent in every aspect of board game design, except for testing the premises of their ideas. And hey, no judgment – I’ve made the same mistake and as a marketing guy, I should darn well know better! So with all this in mind, let’s talk about vetting your board game ideas before going through all the rigamarole of launching a Kickstarter campaign.

Remember the phrase “product-market fit.” If you want to sell something, remember that value is subjective and based upon what your audience desires. If they don’t want what you’re selling, no amount of ads, discounts, pretty pages, or anything else will get your game sold. You have to make sure there is real market demand first. Here are four methods you can use as a proxy for product-market fit within the board game industry.

1. Send a prototype to a play-testing service before launching a Kickstarter.

I think play-testing services, in general, are a good way to spend money. Play-testing is how we perform quality assurance in the board game industry. The standards are exacting and the process is circuitous. That’s why I’ve plugged the GameSmiths on the blog in the past. I think that their services provide tremendous economic value when you think in terms of time saved.

That said, we’re not talking about quality assurance here. We’re talking about product-market fit. As it turns out, even professional play-testers are gamers first and foremost. Often, if they give a game low reviews even though it’s technically well-designed, it’s because they have the sense that something is…off. That undefined “something” is often a canary in the coal mine of bigger problems with marketability.

In board games, poor product-market fit doesn’t often look like slam reviews from reviewers, gamers, or play-testing services. Poor product-market fit looks like faint praise and 6/10 reviews. This industry is powered by people who are in love with board games, and anything that doesn’t quite seem right will often receive no more than a mediocre review. Paid play-testers often provide reviewer-esque feedback before you go to the hassle of completing a game, printing a short run, and sending a game out to reviewers.

2. Go to a Protospiel convention before launching a Kickstarter.

Does paying for a play-testing service seem a bit too clinical? Does the feedback seem a bit stilted and inorganic? Fortunately, there is a way to get real feedback from board games in a natural environment. You can go to local conventions called Protospiels and share your half-finished board games and no one will balk. It’s the culture!

Product-market fit can often be felt long before a game is polished. People feel attracted to a game, even in its rough state, when product-market fit is present. If you take your game to a Protospiel and it’s got typos and a couple of slipshod rules but people still come back for more, then you’ve got product-market fit.

Now here’s the big risk with this approach: it’s easy to see what you want to see. Board game design is super personal. It’s a creative outlet. Designers and even publishers often don’t see the warning signs because, frankly, it hurts to look. It hurts to see that your idea isn’t catching on with your target audience.

With that in mind, let’s talk about more objective ways of measuring interest.

3. Release a print-and-play version of your game before launching a Kickstarter.

A lot of the time, you can often launch a print-and-play (PNP) version of a board game long before you consider a Kickstarter campaign. The internet makes this very easy to do. Granted, the kind of gamers who will willingly try and PNP board game are a very small subset of the larger market, but their insight can nonetheless be valuable.

The real key here is this: does anybody want to try your PNP game? If you promote the PNP on a variety of channels, particularly the appropriate ones, and the number of takers is big, fat goose egg, then something in your pitch isn’t connecting. Similarly, if you have a download page and nobody ever sends you feedback, that’s also spooky. At the PNP stage, even negative feedback is a sign that people are truly engaging with your board game. Uninteresting print-and-plays are usually neither printed nor played.

4. Run ads on Facebook and see how many people sign up for your mailing list before launching a Kickstarter.

There are some elements of your board game that may not best suited for feedback from gamers. Oftentimes, gamers respond to art long before they respond to gameplay. If you ask for detailed feedback, you’ll receive feedback on gameplay but not first impressions. So how do you test first impressions? Use a system entirely based upon them – Facebook ads.

Like I mentioned above, this is best suited for testing art. Create a simple landing page with Mailchimp that will gather emails. Then create a simple ad containing some art for your game and a two-sentence pitch. Set the audience to board gamers within the US, UK, Australia, and Canada. Set your budget for $10 total or so. You can always increase this later.

If you find that people are willingly handing over their email addresses for $1 each, that’s a good sign. If each email costs more than $2-3, something is definitely off. It could be your pitch or it could be your art. Either one can pose a big problem for product-market fit.

5. Look for signs of real enthusiasm and ignore vanity metrics.

Even if you follow all the steps above, you can still launch a dud. Play-testing services focus on what makes games fun, but not necessarily what makes them marketable. When Protospiels start back up again after the virus, people will still hold back criticism out of politness sometimes. Print-and-play fans tend to be die-hards, and thus a poor representative of a general audience. Finally, sometimes your game can do well in ads and flop on Kickstarter.

So what’s a Kickstarter creator-to-be to do? How can you tell if people actually care about your game? Here are some of the best signs I can think of:

  1. People ask detailed questions about your game that indicate they read your rules.
  2. You see followers show up on your Kickstarter prelaunch page without any incentive to do so.
  3. People sign up for your mailing list without an incentive.
  4. When you send emails, lots of people open them (think 40% or more).
  5. People take time out of their busy days to watch you live-stream a game.
  6. Social media ads are far cheaper than average.
  7. Players share the game with their friends.

None of these signs are foolproof, but together, they suggest that people really like your game. Social media likes are meaningless. People willing to personally reccomend your game to their friends is priceless.

Final Thoughts

Vetting your core ideas before launching a Kickstarter campaign is vital. It’s difficult emotionally, but thankfully, there are a lot of ways you can do it. You can take any of the above methods or substitute your own. The most important thing here as that you test your ideas and make sure you have good product-market fit. If you nail that, everything else will be a good deal simpler.

How do you vet your ideas before launching a Kickstarter? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you 🙂