Last week, I posted A Crash Course in Games, where I acted as a tour guide to the board game industry, covering much of the contextual information you’ll need to make games. Let’s pick up from there and talk about what specifically goes into making a game. What is board game development all about?
I tend to use the word game development as a catch-all term for everything that is associated with making a game – that includes game design, product development, marketing, promotion, Kickstarter/crowdfunding, fulfillment, and selling. I use “game development” to describe “the entire creative process of creating a game from start to finish” the same way people say “the White House” to refer to “the United States government.”
So what goes into game development? Let’s break it down…
Board Game Development: Game Design
When people think of board game development, they’re probably thinking of board game design. The processes associated with creating the actual game itself – the way it plays and feels – fall under the purview of game design. Game design involves creating a game with a core engine that drives the gameplay at a fundamental level. It involves creating mechanics that determine how players interact with the game. It involves creating rules which define objectives and constraints that keep the player focused on certain goals and make it difficult for them to reach them.
Game design also involves a lot of play-testing. Throughout the game design process, you’ll be playing versions of your game, most of which will be horribly broken. You’ll start out playing your game by yourself, simulating other players. Then you’ll start play-testing within a close circle of associates. Once you confirm that your game is reasonably well polished, you’ll be able to play with disinterested strangers. When it’s almost ready to go, you’ll give your game to people who have never played it before and who do not have any help from you. That’s called blind play-testing.
This whole time, you’ll be making tweaks, improving your game here and there. Bear in mind, game design only covers aspects related to the game itself.
Game production is the process of making sure that your freshly designed game becomes a physical product which is perceived well by others. This involves creating or buying art, doing accessibility testing, doing play-testing for factors not directly related to gameplay per se, buying samples, preparing the game for manufacturing, and manufacturing itself. The utopian ideal here is that your game will be beautiful, easy-to-use, physically attractive, and – most important – an actual thing that actually exists in the actual world (and not just your mind). Production is what takes a game design from pen and paper to the print shop. It’s also what makes a game design sell-able.
Board Game Development: Game Marketing & Promotion
Of course, games very seldom sell themselves. You’ll hear every once in a while about a game that flies off the shelf. You probably won’t be that person. (But please call me if you wind up being that person.)
Marketing and promotion is hard work, and you’ll want to start laying the groundwork as soon as you can. It involves creating a strategy, getting web traffic, using social media, using email newsletters, getting game reviews, going to conventions, doing live-streams, issuing press releases, and – most of all – networking. Marketing is about building relationships with people and you need lots of time to do this right. Talking to people is often the difference between selling a game and not selling a game.
A lot of board game developers choose to go through Kickstarter for funding these days. Considering that you have a roughly 50/50 shot of success on the platform, that’s a pretty good idea. Kickstarter has become a de facto testing ground for new board game ideas. If you choose to use Kickstarter for board game development, there’s a lot that comes with that territory as well.
First, you need to spread the word early. Kickstarter is not square one. It is a loud rallying cry that is only useful if you already have an audience who is listening to you. Marketers would refer to it as a “call to action” – something that gets all the wallflowers in your audience to join the party (by throwing money at you online).
Of course, you need to put on your vanity glasses to deal with some preparation in addition to just schmoozing. You have to account for Kickstarter math (fees, taxes, and shipping). There is also the complex matter of making a great campaign page. Completing a Kickstarter requires fulfillment network, as well as creating timetables and coming up with a way to keep your promises. Planning the launch day is critical. You need to set stretch goals if you exceed your goal and come up with a back-up plan if you fall short. Expect to make regular updates. Some people opt to set up a pre-order system after their campaigns.
Let’s assume you create a great game, people like it, you Kickstart successfully, and people know your name. That still won’t sell your game. Trust me, I’ve learned this in the school of hard knocks! Selling involves creating a game that has something about it that makes people want to click Add to Cart or grab it off the game store shelf. That links back to production and marketing. There is also the matter of setting a price point that works for folks. You’ll probably find yourself thinking about advertising, conventions, selling to distributors, and direct selling to customers.
Then there is, of course, the matter of keeping momentum after your game’s release. This isn’t easy! It requires an ongoing effort that links back to your game’s design, production, and marketing.
I’ve just dropped so, so much information here that it would be easy to get intimidated, close the tab, and quit. However, it’s this great complexity that I feel compelled to detangle throughout the course of Start to Finish. Every single subject I’ve mentioned above – game design, production, marketing and promotion, Kickstarter, and selling – is something I feel comfortable talking about at length. We’ll walk through this together and go into all the details. We’ll get really into the weeds.
With an idea of what’s to come, you’ve already got a much better start than I ever had.
Self-publishing a board game is a long, drawn-out process. Some of this goes back to the process of creating your game, getting it manufactured, and raising funds. Yet if there were a single thing that self-publishers regularly fail at, it’s marketing.
Marketing covers a wide array of activities that convince people to care about and eventually buy your game. Yet that definition doesn’t do it justice. Marketing is best understood as an ongoing process that breathes itself into everything you do as a self-publishing board game developer. As an example, look at this generic project timeline I made a while back. That gray bar at the bottom of the chart that stretches from the beginning to the end is labeled Marketing.
The goal of marketing, especially when you’re small and just getting started, is not to broadcast your message. Until you have a big media presence, you can’t really use “the hype machine” to your advantage. You just don’t have the power to do that. You can, however, target a very particular audience – this is the best use of your limited resources and it’s much more effective. Don’t broadcast. Narrowcast instead.
AIDA stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. When you’re a marketer, the first thing you need to do is get people to know you exist – attention. Then you have to make people care about your game – interest. If they start to want your game, that’s a good sign – desire. Next, they get on your website or Amazon with intention to buy – action. Marketing is a slow dance. You have to very slowly build your reputation.
Marketing is not just about garnering attention and targeting a specific audience. It’s about convincing people to buy your game and to talk about. This is a multi-step process and you need to understand that. You cannot simply shout about your game into the void of Twitter and pray for the best. You need to create a “sales funnel.”
Here is an example of a sales funnel:
With the board game Tasty Humans, we used Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to generate leads. We also generated leads with paid advertising, reviews, and a Rahdo review. This is how we attracted attention.
We were very careful about how we worded each ad and social media post. We usually said something to the effect of “Become a monster. Eat villagers. A puzzle-solving, tile placement board game for 1-4 players.” This pitch piqued Interest.
Kickstarter campaigns act as a clear call to Action because time is so limited. This causes people to back while they still have a chance!
There are a million ways to do this and I can’t tell you the best. In fact, I’m still tweaking, learning, and growing all the time on this because I’ve not yet perfected my sales funnel.
If you look on Board Game Geek, you’ll find that there are so many types of games out there. It’ll make your head spin. You want to know exactly what sort of game you’re making so that you can select the ideal target market and tweak around them. If you can’t describe your game, you’re in deep marketing trouble.
I suggest you look on Board Game Geek to find similar games to yours. There will always be similar games. Know how to make comparisons of your game to other games. Tasty Humans, for example, was like Azul, Sagrada, and Tetris.
Know how to describe mechanics that are in your game and see who it appeals to. Some people dislike “take that” mechanics because they’re too mean-spirited, such as the well-regarded reviewer, Rahdo. It’s no use selling a game with “take that” mechanics to him, then, is it? Likewise, some people really, really love “take that” mechanics and they’re the ones I sell War Co. to.
Know exactly who you’re trying to appeal to. This determines your target audience. Your target audience will differ with each game.
The intersection of your product and your target makes your niche. This is a special place in the market that you occupy better than anyone else (ideally). Your niche in the board game industry is your competitive advantage. You want to own a niche. You want to scratch a particular itch for a particular person better than anyone else.
When you have the perfect product for a specific target, that’s how you get a niche. When you have a working sales funnel that your target audience responds to, that’s how you turn a niche into cash.
Price is very important. I used to claim that it wasn’t, but Kickstarter has changed a lot of the last several years. Namely, backers have become more price-sensitive because of the sheer variety of available board games. This same effect can be found on other online retailers as well as in local gaming stores.
The degree to which customers make decisions based solely on price is called “price sensitivity.” So this naturally brings you to the question of “how exactly do you know what to charge?” There is no easy answer, but here is a method I have found useful:
Go to Kickstarter, Amazon, and local gaming stores.
Look for games that are similar to the one you are making. They need to be similar and art style, amount of components, and general “feel.”
Write down what each one costs – both the base price and shipping.
Pay attention to their sales figures. Copy the successful games’ pricing strategies.
Make sure you can afford to price competitively, or, reduce the amount of materials you need to produce the game.
Marketing is more than simply product, niche, pricing, and setting up a marketing system. It’s also about the subjective experiences that people have while they’re dealing with you. It’s also about what people think about when they hear about your game, when they hear about your website, and when they hear your name. This can all be classed under the bailiwick of “customer experience.”
How do you control customer experience? Some people think it’s about branding – your website, logo, and all that stuff. That’s all important, but let’s talk about four specific processes which affect how people experience your brand:
The sales process. Everything about how you approach people affects your brand. From the language you use, the venues you reach out to people through, and the entire process by which you persuade people to buy your product falls under the sales process.
The buying or pre-order process. The website or offline sales channels you use to facilitate buying or pre-ordering affect how people see you. You want purchasing to be as seamless as possible so you appear professional.
The fulfillment process. You need to fulfill games as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. You want people to think of you as someone who keeps their promises.
The returns process. If people decide they don’t like your game, you need to have a seamless return process. People who return your games but have a good experience returning the game will have a more positive view of your brand. They might choose to buy from you later.
While processes and logistics may seem just like means to an end, it’s important that people feel like they’re being treated well at every step of the process. This is an important part of marketing because these processes will determine your reputation.
Core Concepts of Promotion
Wikipedia says that “[p]romotion covers the methods of communication that a marketer uses to provide information about its product.” In short, promotion is how you spread the word about your business. When you’re a first-time business owner, or especially a first-time game dev, mastery of promotion is absolutely critical to your success. That’s why half this guide is dedicated to promotion and promotion alone.
Promotion is a big tent that covers a lot of different concepts which I cover in more detail below. The first is outreach – how you find first-time customers (also known as “lead generation”). One very specific type of outreach that is critical in the board game industry is the review process. Then you have distribution, which tends to overlap with promotion in some critical ways. Kickstarter itself, which many people falsely see as the means of succeeding in the board game industry in and of itself, is a form of promotion. Finally, there is also advertising – a very effective and nuanced form of promotion that tends to scare people off because it costs money.
Outreach is how you find people to care about your game. It is how you find your target and tell them about your product so that you can carve out your niche. Some people call this “lead generation.”
There are a number of great ways you can run an effective outreach campaign. You can use social media, go to conventions, do an email newsletter, start a chat room, create a Facebook group, and even advertise. While there are some methods that are more effective than others, you want to choose a form of outreach that you like and really stick to it. Just try one or two forms of outreach at first and work your way up if you find that you have enough time to do more.
Social media includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other popular websites where people tend to hang out. This is what people immediately jump to when they think of outreach. However, mastering social media is a challenge all of its own and that requires nuanced thinking which I spell out in Setting Up Social Media as a Board Game Dev: A Primer Course. This is the most approachable way to find and reach out to your target audience, but it’s also a fantastic way to get ignored in the unending shuffle of these constantly noisy networks.
You can also meet a lot of people very quickly by going to board game cons. By meeting people face-to-face and getting contact information such as phone numbers and email addresses, you can get reach out to lots of people in a short amount of time. Cons, however, are intimidating, cost a lot of money, and take a lot of time. That said, I know beginners who have great experiences with them. Don’t write off cons!
Email newsletters are a great way to reach out to people, too. You have to ask for a lot of email addresses and put out a regular, high-quality newsletter with a service like Mailchimp. It’s tricky to do both of these things, but email is by far one of the greatest ways to contact people online. Given a choice between a mailing list of 100 and a Twitter following of 1000, I would take the mailing list every single time – no contest. I have personally had great results with my newsletter (which you should totally sign up for).
I cannot begin to list all the different forms of outreach. This aspect of business rewards creativity and hard work. As long as you can reach out to a highly targeted group of people and keep in touch with them on a systematic basis, you’re well on your way to succeeding with outreach.
Reviews warrant their own section as a very specific form of outreach. They are such a critical credibility-builder for new game devs. Good reviews convince people to buy your game. The occasional bad review still gets your name out there for others to discover you later, plus it makes you look more authentic.
Use Reddit, Board Game Geek, and social media to identify reviewers who fall within your target market. You’ll want to send games to them when it comes time for the review stage of your game’s development. If the reviewer is a professional with an engaged audience and you select based on them falling within your target market, you have a good chance of getting a good review that is seen by people who were already predisposed to like your game’s style from the get-go.
Distribution involves ways that your game is seen outside of just your website or company Amazon account. It is sometimes helpful to have third-party retailers or subscription boxes sell your game on your behalf. When you’re starting out, the exposure alone can be extremely useful to you. Good distribution gets your game seen by more people.
Want to know a secret? This is actually something I’ve bungled on War Co. in the past, so I don’t want to purport to be an expert on this. I encourage you to ask questions about the ideal way to distribute your game and do better than I did my first time.
Kickstarter is the last step in a long marketing dance for a lot of game developers. Your Kickstarter campaign is generally only the Action part of AIDA. Getting people to pay Attention, growing their Interest, and cultivating Desire – those are all up to you. Kickstarter is nothing more than a struck match on a pile of tinder that you assembled yourself.
That said, about 30-40% of backers tend to find you through the search, meaning Kickstarter is a good form of outreach. A lot of people who don’t care at all about social media are trawling Kickstarter in search of the newest new. Still, the degree to which Kickstarter contributes dollars-wise tends to pin itself to how much of an entourage you bring on your own.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that $1 rewards are one of the best things you can have on Kickstarter. Yes, it makes your backer count go up, which is itself a good thing. More importantly, though, once the campaign is done, you can ask everyone to fill out a survey – meaning you can ask for email addresses if you have a newsletter. Kickstarter is not just a way of convincing people to give you money, it can also be a way to capture and hold attention for future games.
Advertising is the last thing I wanted to cover. People tend to get spooked by advertising because they hate the idea of giving up their hard-earned cash for something abstract. Plus, it’s super easy to get burned by advertising and you see a lot of smart people talking bad about advertising because they failed to understand more critical, basic marketing lessons. Still, the potential time savings might just be worth a few hundred bucks in Facebook ads. You’d be a fool to dismiss advertising entirely.
Facebook and Board Game Geek tend to be pretty good places to advertise board games. I’d stick to Facebook when you’re new, though, because Board Game Geek has a really high minimum expense. Facebook doesn’t require you to spend much at all and it also comes with robust analytics that let you make the most of your ad.
When you make an ad, you need to act like a scientist, creating ads and seeing how people react to them. You subtly tweak them until you get better and better responses. But where do you begin? Start with something that your target audience will respond to. Start with the tightest, smallest possible audience.
Once you have a tight target and a good basic idea of what to say to grab attention, you need one last thing. You need to make sure your ad goes to a page that leads to high conversions. The word “conversion” here means “a person who does what you want them to do” in marketing jargon. Do you want them to follow you on Twitter, buy your game, back your campaign, or sign up for your newsletter? Think hard about what you want people to do once you start an ad.
Marketing board games can be very tricky. This article was designed to give you a broad overview of all the different things that go into marketing. My hope is that by spelling it all out, you’ll be more equipped to pitch your game to people who care. Use this guide to ask more questions, run more tests, and get your wheels turning.
If you have any questions or comments, I encourage you to comment below 🙂
Kickstarter is big, flashy, and exciting. New creators tend to see it as the one big goal to achieve before reaching success. Everything would be just right if you could just hit that goal…
That’s just not the case. The truth is that unless a Kickstarter is a total blockbuster, you won’t raise enough to print the game, pay your living expenses, and buy plane tickets to Hawaii. Kickstarter is merely the beginning of a long journey to establish yourself. After it, you can hope to passively sell your game and reap the rewards in the form of sales. You could also use your success to launch multiple games, building a company in the process. Alternatively, you could dedicate yourself to game design, picking up 5-10% on every game you design for different companies.
The point is, Kickstarter is just the beginning. No matter what your intention afterward, if you want to maintain your success, you need to keep the hype train moving!
For this article, I’ll be sharing eight ways that I know of which you can use to keep the hype train going for your game, your game design portfolio, or your publishing company. This list isn’t all-inclusive, so if you’ve got more ideas, share them in the comments!
It’s an established best practice to continue updating your Kickstarter campaign after its completion. You naturally want to keep backers – essentially investors – informed about your activities and how things are coming along. The primary purpose of these updates is informational, but they have the side benefit of keeping your name and your game’s name high up in people’s email inboxes. It helps them remember who you are.
Now there are limits to that. If you overdo it, you’ll annoy people and they’ll unsubscribe from your updates. In small doses, though, this can be an effective way to keep people informed about your future projects.
2. Use your mailing list.
It’s another established best practice that you should use your mailing list wisely. In fact, you probably built one up as part of your Kickstarter campaign. Let’s assume, for the sake of simple discussion, that you did.
Once you’ve got people’s emails, as long as you can write interesting ones, 25-30% of your list members will open them up. (These numbers steeply climb if you keep your contact list clean and/or write exceptionally good emails.) On top of that, a good amount of them will click on links you include in the emails as well. That makes your mailing list an effective way to share future projects or game updates. Like Kickstarter updates, this is a simple way to keep in touch with people you’ve already reached out to.
3. Build a community.
One of the best things you can do to keep hype going is build a community. If you can get people to show up somewhere – online or offline – and talk about common interests, that will keep people coming back over and over again. There is a lot of nuance that goes into community management and it can be time-consuming, but it’s also a good way to keep fans engaged. Unlike the previous two suggestions, a community can bring in new people too.
New creators often have mixed feelings about advertising, but the simple fact is that it’s fast, easy, and – if you do it right – effective at reaching out to new people. I recommend you start with Facebook because of the low cost of entry and the great data they provide you with. That will allow you to tweak and learn as you go.
I did a whole separate article on this recently called How to Take Pre-Orders when Your Board Game Kickstarter Ends. Nothing quite says “hype” quite like actual sales coming in while your inventory is being manufactured or shipped to your warehouse. Pre-orders are good because they allow people to get involved even after missing the Kickstarter, they bring in money, and because they act as an effective call to action for other marketing initiatives you take on.
6. Tell stories or build lore.
Many games come with complex worlds. If your game does, you have a big opportunity! You can build that world a little bit every day or every week through a mailing list, a blog, or social media. You can use stories to pique people’s interest in your game even after the Kickstarter campaign is complete. This might even pull in some pre-orders!
7. Keep marketing – online and offline.
For more information on this, you can see A Crash Course in Board Game Marketing & Promotion. Long story short, whatever you did to build up your audience for the Kickstarter campaign, you can do more of that to build a larger audience and keep your existing one engaged. If you succeeded in funding, then you know for a fact that you have a working marketing system, so use it to your advantage.
8. Make more games.
If you want to stay active in the board game community and get your name out there, it’s a good idea to get involved in more game projects. Whether you lead the project, design, or collaborate, there is a good chance that people will find your old games through your new games.
With a successful Kickstarter campaign behind you, you’re in a uniquely powerful position. The extra attention can help you start a business, build a portfolio of game designs, or simply create a passive income stream. It’s wise to think about what comes after a Kickstarter campaign so you can take advantage of new opportunities.
Let me know other ways to keep hype going for your game in the comments below – I’d love to hear your input 🙂