How to Make a Tabletop Simulator Demo of Your Board Game

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Many of you know that I’m in love with Tabletop Simulator as a testing tool. It’s a simple app on the Steam store, it costs $19.99, and it’s been an extraordinary resource for me during the development of War Co.Highways & Byways, and Tasty Humans.

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The 5 Benefits of Using Tabletop Simulator

I’d like to explain to you exactly how to create a demo of your board game on Tabletop Simulator, but first let’s discuss what I perceive as its five main benefits:

1. It saves you a ton of money and time on prototyping.

Even using simple paper and ink from your printer can add up pretty quickly when you’re making different versions of your game. This can easily add up into the hundreds of dollars, as it did with War Co. for me before I discovered LackeyCCG and eventually Tabletop Sim.

2. It takes less time to create a prototype.

Instead of physically creating a new game or swapping out parts every time you make a substantial change, you can simply update the image files on your Tabletop Sim demo. It’s pretty straightforward.

3. You can play-test online.

This means you can find play-testers all over the world, which allows you to see how well your game communicates with people from different cultures or who don’t speak your language as well. Not to mention, it’s easier for many people to find others online than in person.

4. It’s great for publicity.

Because you can play online, you get the tremendous opportunity to livestream your game with people who have a good size audience on Twitch or YouTube. This is one of the most underrated marketing opportunities around for board game dev. I could easily make two or three articles on livestreaming board games.

5. It makes it easier to build an audience before you have a physical copy of the game.

This goes hand in hand with benefit #4 but bears mention on its own. Until you have something to show people, it’s really hard to get them interested in your board game. Because high-quality physical prototypes can be expensive, Tabletop Simulator gives you the ability to show potential fans what your game is all about without committing to expensive physical prototypes.

How to Make a Tabletop Simulator Demo of Your Board Game

Step One: Create Images of Your Board, Cards, and Components

For the purposes of this guide, let’s assume your game involves a board, some cards, and some two-dimensional pieces. If it involves 3D models or other complex pieces, see the knowledge base that the development studio put together.

First, you’ll want to create JPG images of your board and each unique component. If you have duplicates of components, just create a single JPG – you can copy and paste the piece multiple times once you’ve loaded into Tabletop Simulator. This is pretty straightforward – all you need are some files that show what they actually look like. The Tabletop Simulator software will automatically size the board and pieces around your images.

Cards are more complicated. You’ll need to use this template or one similar to it. You’ll need to place the front of each card on one of these numbered slots, starting with 1 and working your way up from there. If you have 50 cards, you’ll fill up the first 50 slots and no others. If you have more than 69 cards, you’ll need to make multiple decks. Once you have all cards placed, save the whole grid as a JPG.

If your cards are a different dimension than the template linked above, you’ll need to create a template that is 10 times the width of a card and 7 times its height. Then you’ll place several gridlines so you get a similar template with different dimensions.

As for the card back, you’ll just need to save that as a JPG. If you have multiple card backs per deck, you’ll need to make another grid based on the template. Card back 1 needs to correspond to card front 1, card back 2 needs to correspond to card front 2, and so on.

Step Two: Upload Your Images to the Internet

Once you have your board, cards, and other pieces ready as JPG files, you need to upload them to the internet. When you’re creating a Tabletop Simulator demo, you’ll need to reference the URL of each image. I suggest you upload files to your own web server, if you have a website. If you don’t have your own web servers, Imgur will do the job.

Step Three: Create a Workshop Item on Tabletop Simulator
  • Start Tabletop Simulator.
  • In this order, click CreateSingleClassic, then Custom.
  • Delete everything from the table by right-clicking each object and clicking Delete. (You can use the default stuff, but I want to show you how to do this the long way.)
  • In the top middle of the screen, click Objects.
  • Click Table on the menu.
  • You should now see a screen similar to the one below where it shows a list of tabletops. Pick one you like.

Now that you have a table, let’s get a board on it.

  • Click Objects in the top middle of the screen.
  • On the menu that shows up on the right, click Components.
  • Click Boards and then Custom.
  • You should see a screen similar to the one below. Copy and paste the URL of your board’s image.
  • Click Import.

Next, let’s add some cards.

  • In this order, click ObjectsComponents, Cards, then Custom Deck.
  • You should see a prompt like below. Fill it in as follows:
    • Face – enter the URL of your card fronts template
    • Unique Backs – check only if each card has a different back
    • Back – enter the URL of your single card back OR the unique card backs  template
    • Width – 10
    • Height – 7
    • Number – number of cards in the deck
    • Sideways – check only if your cards are meant to be used sideways
    • Back is Hidden – check
  • Click Import.

To add a custom component, follow these instructions.

  • In this order, click Objects, Components, then Custom.
  • Click Tile for flat pieces or Figurine for stand-up pieces.
  • You should see a prompt like below. Fill it in as follows:
    • Type – Box for square, Hex for hexagon, Circle for circle, Rounded for rounded square
    • Top Image – enter URL
    • Bottom Image – enter URL
    • Thickness – 0.20
    • Stackable – (your choice)
    • Stretch to Aspect Ratio – (checked)
  • Click Import.

At this point, you can hover over any individual piece and press the plus or minus key to increase or decrease its size. You can also highlight any pieces you wish to copy and use CTRL+C and CTRL+V to make copies.

Well, let’s not go overboard with copy-paste…
Step Four: Release the Workshop Item

Once you’re done, click Upload > Workshop Upload. Fill out all the information, and click Upload. It will upload it to Steam and then give you a Workshop ID. Any time you want to update your workshop item, pull up this same window and click the Update Workshop tab. Then type in the Workshop ID, fill out the information, and click Update.

Step Five: Get Noticed

If you plan on using Tabletop Simulator for anything other than rapid prototyping, it’s not enough to simply create a Tabletop Simulator demo. After you create the demo, you’ll need to go looking for people who will want to play your game. This can be tricky because not everybody has Tabletop Simulator and oftentimes people are not willing to spend the $19.99 to get it. Think about how you spread your message. Consider reaching out to people who like Tabletop Simulator and play-testing new games on Twitter or in Facebook groups.

Need More Help with Tabletop Simulator?

As you can imagine, with software as sophisticated as Tabletop Simulator, I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of its true abilities in this article. You can create incredibly complex board games with 3D models and Lua scripting. The possibilities are immense.

For that reason, if you need help with Tabletop Simulator, I recommend you check out Overboard Games. The guy behind this company runs the Pangea Games social media, and he’s become really, really talented with Tabletop Simulator. He and his team have even made demos for big publishers such as Stronghold Games, Garphill Games, and Portal Games. He’s worth your time!

Final Thoughts

There you have it! This is a quick and dirty guide on getting started in Tabletop Simulator. Once you understand the basics, you can learn more of the nuanced aspects of creating a demo. I’m just here to help you get started 🙂

20 New Year’s Resolutions for Board Game Devs in 2020

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I’m a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions. While choosing January 1 to start something that you’ve always wanted to do is completely arbitrary, it sure does work!

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With that in mind, I want to help you come up with some New Year’s Resolutions of your own, ones specifically related to board game design. Never one to pass up on a delicious clickbait potential like “20 New Year’s Resolutions,” I’ve come up with, well, 20 of them. Pick a few that you like and see where it takes you!

1. Create your first board game.

If you’ve never created a board game or pursued a passion project, this is a great goal to start with. It’s straightforward and a lot of fun. You don’t have to publish it or market it or any of that. Just go out and make a great board game for fun. Card games count, too!

2. Play-test with game designers.

If you’re the kind of creator who has a few prototype board games in your closet somewhere, consider playing one of them with a few game designers. You can usually find them at Protospiel conventions or even local game stores or Meetup groups. You will learn a lot more about play-testing with game designers than you will even with avid board gamers. Designers notice totally different things and it’s a good experience to have.

3. Order a professional physical prototype of one of your board games.

Whether you’re making a board game for the first time in 2020 or you’re digging up an old prototype and polishing it to perfection, don’t underestimate sheer ecstasy of being able to hold your actual, physical, printed game. It’s a rush and websites like The Game Crafter and Board Games Maker make it very accessible.

4. Experiment with a theme or mechanics you’ve never used.

If you’re a more veteran board game designer, why not push yourself by trying something you’ve not tried before? Let’s say you’ve made light games. Try making a heavy game. If you’ve made heavy games, make a light game. If you’ve made board games, make a card game. Experimenting helps you grow your skills and it shows you new things that you might like!

5. Buy some board game art, even if it’s just one piece.

Similar to ordering a professional physical prototype, getting a talented artist to do a little work for your game can be a major motivator to keep going. My first game, War Co., truly became alive when I got the first art from James Masino.

6. Learn how to make more accessible board games.

“Accessible” is a loaded word in board gaming, but the basic concepts are simple: make games for as many people as you can. Try reading some articles on Meeple Like Us – they’re very informative and Dr. Michael Heron writes what could very easily be a dry academic subject with compelling intelligence and humor.

7. Launch a Kickstarter campaign.

This isn’t right for everyone, but Kickstarter can really help you start a business if you use it right. It’s a great way of gaining visibility, setting yourself up for long-term success, and – hello – earning money, too!

8. Get featured on a podcast or a blog.

One of the smartest things you can do in any business, especially the board game business, is make friends. Content creators such as podcasters and bloggers often enjoy working with guests. It’s mutually beneficial and it gets your name out there.

9. Build up one or more social media accounts on a site such as Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

You can read more about that in my article here: Setting Up Social Media as a Board Game Dev: A Primer Course.

10. Learn how to use Board Game Geek.

Board Game Geek is a thriving, lively community that neatly captures the general ethos of board gaming as a whole. It’s a great site to learn from, meet people, and promote your work. It’s also incredibly complex as a community and it takes some getting used to. The year 2020 is a good time to get started!

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11. Learn how to use Reddit.

Much like Board Game Geek, Reddit is a complex community that takes some getting used to. There are some really good subreddits for board games such as /r/boardgames and /r/tabletopgamedesign. Might be good to look into next year!

12. Go to a board gaming convention.

While they are expensive and often require substantial time off from work, conventions can be a lot of fun. It’s worth going to one just for the experience, and if you’re really dedicated, it can be a fantastic networking event as well.

13. Launch a blog about board gaming.

I’m a fan of this one, though many would never be able to tell.

14. Build an email list.

Every product launch requires building an audience. That requires getting their attention, piquing their interest, and – as many people forget – giving them a place to go. Email lists are a very powerful tool for growing a small business, and Mailchimp lets you get your first 2,000 subscribers for free.

15. Start a Facebook group.

Facebook is, and has been, the biggest social media network for a long time. It’s not the trendiest, but the juggernaut of online connection. Groups are a great way of gathering like-minded individuals into one place to chat.

16. Learn how to sell.

Sales is a good skill to pick up for any industry. You can read more about it in my article A Crash Course on Selling Board Games.

17. Get one retailer to carry your game.

If you’ve got a game published but you sell it directly to customers, it can be a major moral victory to get your game carried in a single store. It doesn’t have to be Walmart or Target. Just try calling 10 or 15 stores within a couple of hours of you. See if they’ll buy five copies.

18. Learn how to use advertising.

Advertising gets a bad rap, but it’s still one of the best ways to get eyeballs on your project. Learn how it works. I recommend using Facebook Ads and Google Ad Words to get started. Even if you fail, the insights you gain might tell you something about your audience.

19. Participate in a board game jam.

Looking to refine your board game development skills? One of the best, and most exciting ways to do that, is to participate in a board game jam.

The basic premise is simple. You have a very limited amount of time to create a game around a specific subject. By constraining yourself with such tight time constraints, you cannot procrastinate on decisions. You just do what seems right. Sometimes, that’s exactly what you need in creative work.

20. Play the top 10 games on Board Game Geek.

Last but far from least, to make great board games, you have to play great board games. Why not commit to trying the top 10 board games on Board Game Geek in 2020?

That’s all I’ve got for you 🙂

I hope this gives you some good ideas. I want to see you win, and sometimes all you need is a goal.

Happy New Year!

How to Make Board Game Rules

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This week while working on my current board game design, a lot of things have come into focus. Now it’s time to start tweaking board game rules. This is where board game design often becomes very tricky.

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With this in mind, let’s talk about how exactly you can make board game rules. As I said last week, “rules regulate the way mechanics are implemented. A mechanic is the concept behind the game and the rule is the way that it’s handled to ensure balance.” Rules are really tricky to do right because you have to serve two purposes: balance the game and communicate clearly.

Rules vs. Rulebooks

Speaking of communicating clearly, let’s draw a distinction between rules and rule books. Rules are conditions within the game that constrain the players from immediately achieving their objectives. Rules can be in rule books, on cards or pieces, or on the board itself.

The rule book is a document meant to teach players how to play. It always includes at least some rules but often doesn’t include all of them. Many of the rules in a game will come from the board, cards, etc. Rule books teach information as well as intention.

Rule books need to be short, or else outside sources will explain the game for you. They need to include examples and specifics, but they shouldn’t go overboard by explaining the finer points of strategy which are better left discovered.

Rule books can be used to prime a player’s experience to make sure the player has the most fun possible. They need to be concise, visual, and skim-able. They need to give players enough information to play the game, even if they only halfway read it.

If your rule book needs a hard cover, it’s probably too long.

Making Balanced & Clear Rules

You can’t have a game without rules. A game without rules is by definition simply free-form play. You can have a game without a rule book – it might just be difficult to play.

With all this said, how does one create rules that fulfill the twin purposes of balancing the game and communicating clearly? I have some guidelines. This is non-exhaustive and it just includes what’s on my mind this week.

Balance Scales
Playtest a Ton

No amount of planning, cleverly designed trade-offs, Excel spreadsheets, or game design theory will ever replace the need to play your game hundreds of times to make sure the rules work. Sometimes stuff you don’t expect work ends up working beautifully, and vice versa.

Consider How Much Challenge You Want Your Game to Have

Rules are the primary way to add constraints (or rather, difficulty) to the game. Think long and hard about how much you want the game to fight back against the players. Make sure your rules are lined up with your intended difficulty. Failure to do this thwarts player expectations, which makes them upset with the game being too easy or too hard.

Consider Where Your Game Falls on the Luck/Skill Spectrum

When it comes to luck vs. skill, there is no ideal way to create a game. There is a sliding scale of luck and skill and you need to choose a place you want your game to fall along that spectrum. Make sure your rules are tonally consistent with your intentions.

Avoid False Choices

If you give a player a choice, make it a tough one. Nothing takes the steam out of game like too many obvious decisions. It makes a player feel powerless, perhaps even like the game is being condescending. When rules force players to make a choice, all choices should come with important pros and cons.

Metro of Tokyo
Too much information will rob your game of clarity! (Photo taken by Antonio Tajuelo. Source, License)
Clearly Point Out Relevant Keywords

Relevant keywords should be capitalized at the least. When you introduce them for the first time, it’s a good idea to bold the words as well. When you make reference to the color green or any other color, you should stylize your text to match.

Use Consistent Keywords and Phrasing

Nothing is more confusing than rules which call the same thing by different names. In Highways & Byways, I make reference to tracking pieces called Travel Cubes. I call them Travel Cubes every time I reference them. The words Travel Cubes are always capitalized in the rules – both the rules in the rule book and the rules on the cards.

Use Present Tense, Active Voice, Second Person

Be direct when writing rules. You will directly address the player with succinct imperatives.

If a Rule is Confusing, Drop It

Want to know how to find a troublemaking rule? Look for a rule requires a bunch of tracking or a bunch of caveats. Your game will be played by people who don’t know the rules inside and out. It might be played in a loud environment. The more you force your player to remember bizarre little rules, the more you risk being misunderstood.

14 Rules for Board Game Rules

Let’s conclude this article by giving you some rules for making rules.

  1. Rules are how we implement game mechanics.
  2. The reason we have rules is twofold: balance the game and explain how to play.
  3. Rules are conditions which prevent players from immediately achieving their objectives.
  4. The rule book does not just contain rules. It teaches players how to play the game.
  5. Rule books need to be concise, visual, and skim-able. 
  6. Rule books need to give players enough information to play a game, even if only halfway read.
  7. Good rules match the intended level of challenge for gamers.
  8. Good rules match the intended luck/skill balance of your game.
  9. Avoid false choices!
  10. Always point out relevant keywords.
  11. Use keywords consistently.
  12. Use present tense, active voice, and second person when writing rules.
  13. If a rule is confusing, drop it.
  14. Play-testing above all else!