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.

 

 

 

The 4 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 four 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.

 

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.

 

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 🙂

The Last Dev Diary & What Comes Next

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Today marks the conclusion of Dev Diary: Lessons Learned through the Making of Highways & Byways. This is the last Dev Diary. Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game is still going to continue. I’ll be doing a post every Monday instead of every Monday and Friday.

 

 

Considering the insights I have gained with the unsuccessful conclusion of Highways & Byways, I will be creating a brief series on Failure Recovery which will be worked into Start to Finish. This is a really important part of getting started in the board game industry which I had not considered writing about until now. Failed product launches happen from time to time, especially with newcomers. Keep an eye out for the Failure Recovery series around the middle of May 2018.

You may be asking: why stop the Dev Diary now? There are two really compelling reasons:

  1. The Dev Diary series was created to detail to development process of Highways & Byways from start to finish. With Highways & Byways having concluded, so too must the series.
  2. This will also help me since I’ll regain a few hours each week for game development.

 

Some of you may be wondering what the conclusion of the Dev Diary and the failure of the Highways & Byways campaign means for me personally. What comes next?

First and foremost: I’m still going to make games and write about making games. I’ll be taking the lessons I’ve learned from Highways & Byways and making games more carefully next time. The big two lessons for me are “start by validating the market” and “don’t work alone.” That means I’m doing a lot of polling and question-asking to see what people are into. I’ve also started working with some people who I’ve grown close to over the last couple of years on new games.

In addition, there is a whole lot of clean up I need to do in order to make sure Pangea Games runs smoothly in the future. For one, I have cut back on unnecessary social media accounts, including the War Co. and Highways & Byways accounts. I’ve streamlined my social media to where only the blog and Pangea Games have social media accounts. On top of that, there are a number of small inefficiencies that I’m resolving.

Most importantly, since I’m no longer working alone, I’m going to start making formal budgets and plans. I’ve always relied on written documentation, even while working alone. However, when working with others, it’s extremely critical to capture timelines and to-do lists in a formal way.

 

Here we stand on the precipice of a brave new world. There is an enormous amount of opportunity ahead for Pangea Games and my future projects. Bringing the Dev Diary series to its conclusion is just one part of that. Thank you for reading this series and enjoy the continuation of Start to Finish 🙂

Why the Highways & Byways Kickstarter Campaign Crashed & Burned

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Highways & Byways failed, but all is not lost.
I’ve started working on a new game called Yesterday’s War.

 

After a year of documenting the Highways & Byways development process through the Dev Diary, this is not the post I wanted to write. I would have much preferred to write a post about how Highways & Byways funded on day 1. Yet today I must write a post on why I canceled the Highways & Byways campaign after two weeks at less than one-third funded.

When I created this blog, I created it to help see creators through the entire game development process. That means the highs and the lows. I will not sweep failure under the rug. That wouldn’t do you any good. It wouldn’t do me any good. Let’s dissect this Kickstarter campaign failure in detail so we can all walk away smarter.

Let’s get something straight first: I make no excuses. I failed. There are reasons for that. It was preventable. I will do better next time.

 

 

Why Highways & Byways Failed on Kickstarter

 

The Highways & Byways Kickstarter campaign failure is the result of poor product-market fit. That basically means that Highways & Byways, intrinsically as a game itself, does not match up well with the desires of the greater Kickstarter board gaming community. I’ve done a lot of hemming and hawing over this, asking “is this really the reason? What other factors could be at play?” There are some smaller factors that contributed to the Kickstarter failure, but this is the big one and I will present my arguments for that a few paragraphs from now. Long story short is that I made Highways & Byways without once asking “what do people want?” I simply pursued a passion project.

A successful Kickstarter campaign, or broadly speaking, a successful product launch hinges upon two big things: product-market fit and audience. If you have a beautiful, perfect product that’s hand-made for a very specific audience, but you have nobody’s attention – you will fail. It’s one of those “tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it” situations. Likewise, if you have a healthy audience, such as the one I’ve grown online, but a product that nobody asked for, you’ll have a few buyers, but ultimately people will ignore you and move on with their day. People are too busy to care about things that only “sort of” interest them.

 

 

Imagine the relationship between product-market fit and audience size as a seesaw. The product-market fit is the base of the seesaw and the audience size is the length of the seesaw. If you have a good product-market fit and a small audience, you can put a rock on one end, drop a bowling ball on the other, and the rock will fly (but not very far). It might go high enough to launch. This is how War Co. worked for me. The game ignited strong passion in people, but my marketing techniques were sloppy and disorganized.

On the flip side, if you have a poor product-market fit and a sizable audience, as I did with Highways & Byways, you get the seesaw on the right. Put a rock on one end, drop a bowling ball on the other, and the rock won’t go very far either. I had an efficient marketing system with a big mailing list, a lot of Twitter followers, and even a little love on the Board Game Geek page. Yet the game itself was only appealing to a very specific group of people, most of whom didn’t hang out on Kickstarter.

Perhaps in 2012, Highways & Byways could have worked. I think it could have even worked in 2016 when I started seriously making board games. Yet at this current moment, Kickstarter has become a buffet. If you put food on the buffet line, it has to be one of the most attractive things out there or else it won’t get eaten. Then you have to take all your soup back home from the work potluck…not that this happened to me.

I’m being a bit silly here, but stop and think about what’s gotten big on Kickstarter lately. It’s a lot of light games near or under $20 USD in price. It’s a lot of heavy games with miniatures. There isn’t very much in between. Highways & Byways falls very much in between, targeted family gamers (who use Kickstarter less) for $49 USD (which isn’t a great price point right now) with no standout components. I never once took Kickstarter data before making this game and its stagnation on Kickstarter shows.

 

Why I Believe Product-Market Fit is the Root Problem

 

The reason I believe product-market fit is the root problem is mostly because of the process of elimination. I looked at the elements that led up to the Kickstarter based on my own personal “game development process map” from creation to Kickstarter. I’m going to go through them in reverse chronological order so you can see how I arrived at this grim diagnosis.

Was it the Kickstarter campaign itself? I don’t think so. The campaign itself has a conversion rate of 3%, an average pledge rate that matches with the core reward, lots of comments relative to the funds raised, and a staggering 51% completion rate on the video. I’ve received nothing but compliments on the way the page was laid out. I initiated the launch sequence with no problems.

Was it the audience size? I doubt it. I had, at the start of this campaign, over 500 emails for Highways & Byways alone, 137 for War Co., and – get this – nearly 1,200 for this blog. On top of that, I have tons of Twitter and Instagram followers across multiple accounts. Even after giving Facebook relatively little attention, the blog and Byways Facebook pages have over or nearly 400 likes each – most of whom are unique individuals.

Was it lack of outreach in terms of streams, blogs, podcasts, etc.? You can always do more outreach, but I wound up working with the super cool people behind Board Game Design Lab and We’re Not Wizards. They have fairly large audiences and are only two of dozens of people I’ve worked within the last three months. I don’t think this was the problem.

Was it a result of bad reviews or poor gameplay? No, they were about as positive as War Co. In fact, they were arguably better. Those who played Highways & Byways showed real desire and passion to play it again. I wouldn’t have gone further if they didn’t.

Was it the artwork? I doubt it. I have received lots of praise for it from reviewers and gamers alike. Ads containing the artwork performed well on Facebook. I would have sent them back to James Masino to be reworked if they did.

Was it the basic concept? Yes. I never asked anybody what they wanted to see. I never used market data to validate this game. I’ve never found an adequate game to make a comparison to. I’ve not seen another campaign like it succeed. I just wasn’t there mentally when I started this game. It was another passion project, much like War Co. I handled the operations much better this time, but the core concept didn’t work.

 

What Led to Poor Product-Market Fit?

 

I’ve said it before and it bears repeating. Highways & Byways was a passion project. War Co. was, too, but it was also a sci-fi game with tons of lore and crunchy calculations. Kickstarter really likes sci-fi, lore-heavy games, and crunchy calculations. That was my saving grace despite a marketing plan that was dodgy at best. Highways & Byways is a better game than War Co., but it’s not a better product. It was purely based on my interests, which the board gaming community as a whole does not happen to share.

 

You can follow your passions and make money. But you can’t blindly follow your passions and make money.

 

Decide right now whether you’re in it for creativity, money, or both. If you’re in it for creativity, don’t worry about the larger trends. If you’re in it for money, become a sellout, make a fantasy worker placement / area control game for $19. If you’re in it for both, figure out where your interests and the market’s interests line up. That’s where you want to be. That’s where I’m moving.

My sellout comment above is a joke, but it hints at some truth. Kickstarter is a big, beautiful data set. You can rip 100 board game campaigns off there and get a pretty good idea at which price points, mechanics, themes, and art styles make money. Use that data! I didn’t use that data because I was pursuing a passion project.

With all this spelled out, there is one more major problem: I worked alone. If I didn’t work alone, there is a very good chance someone would have stopped me. Even if they didn’t, it wouldn’t have taken as long as it did. I may have even had some games in the backlog for after Highways & Byways, which would have also softened the fall.

All of this – poor product-market fit caused by the blind pursuit of passion, a lack of data, and refusal to delegate – is what I believe broke Byways. I think this is far more important than posting on the perfect, magical Facebook groups, getting upvotes on Reddit, or having WIP thread on Board Game Geek. Those things are valuable and I will look into them more in the future, but they’re not the roots.

 

 

What am I Going to Do?

 

By the evening of Day 1, Highways & Byways was funding slower than War Co. It had a higher funding goal and better marketing operations. I knew something was off immediately, so in my spare moments, I started devising a plan B. Thankfully, I have a beautiful place to crash land. I have an incredibly polite and intelligent Discord server of over 1,100 game developers. I have a blog that, ironically, is more popular right now than it was when I started the campaign. I have an online platform. I make plenty of money. I’ve got a lot of friends and family. The world is not in ruins.

I’ve assembled a group of close associates. We are going to start coordinating our efforts, dividing up tasks, and being really open and honest with each other. Being alone was a major factor in my failure, and this is going to help.

Next thing I’m going to do is cut back all the crap. I’m going to stop running so many social media accounts. I’m going to eliminate processes that aren’t effective. Moreover, I’m going to stop doing what I’m not great at. I’m good at a lot of the game development process, but it’s time to delegate some things – such as game design and play-testing – to others who have more intrinsic talent than I do. I’m still going to make games, I’m just going to make sure my contributions really count next time.

This last one is huge. I am never going to create a product without validating the market first. Never, never, never, never, never, never, never again. I’m going to find out what people like, compare that to what I like, and make something that makes us all very happy. This is the first filter in my new game development process and I will use it aggressively.

As for Highways & Byways itself: I may do a small print run. I’m still investigating that.

 


 

Writing this post was like performing an exorcism. I’d prefer to not have to have written it, but here we are. I’ve learned a ton. I’m not going to quit. I have a plan for the future and more optimism than I had even a few weeks ago in the run-up to this campaign.

I hope you can learn from my mistakes. Helping you is what this blog is all about 🙂