What confuses you most about board game development?

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Board game development is incredibly complex. To create a board game from start to finish, think of everything you have to do:

  • Come up with a board game idea and design a game around it.
  • Create rules and mechanics that help you express your idea in the best way possible.
  • Play-test the game until it feels right.
  • Find artists.
  • Create digital print files of your game.
  • Figure out manufacturing and fulfillment.
  • Figure out marketing and promotion.

Needless to say, this is extraordinarily complicated. I’ve covered this topic from different angles for the last three years and I’m amazed even still by my blind spots.

With that in mind, this blog exists to serve you. I want to create information that is necessary and useful for every struggling board game creator who happens to stumble across this blog.

I have just one question for you today, and I’d like for you to answer in this post’s comments. I’ll use your questions as inspiration for posts coming in April, May, and beyond!

What confuses you most about board game development?

How a Failed Kickstarter Set Me Up For Success 2 Years Later

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Almost two years ago today, I launched a Kickstarter campaign for a board game called Highways & Byways. It was a deeply personal project for which I had high hopes. When it wound up being just another failed Kickstarter campaign, it hurt badly.

I learned a lot from that experience. From it, I went on to write Why the Highways & Byways Kickstarter Campaign Crashed & Burned, which remains one of the most popular posts on this blog, even two years later. To save you a click: it was a product made for no specific audience in mind at a price point that was unresolvably high. Needless to say, I learned a lot in the first few weeks after that campaign.

But it was still raw then. So unbelievably, painfully, humiliatingly raw.

Yet two years later, when I look back, I see how its failure ended up improving my life and my business in a number of ways. With the benefit of hindsight, I will now share my experiences with you.

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Failure, Success, Luck, Skill, Ruin, and Reward…

Further along in the post, I will talk about specific ways that the Highways & Byways Kickstarter campaign failure made my life better. But first I want to talk about a few things I’ve learned about failure and why I think my experiences clash with common narratives that I’ve read online.

The Road to Success is Not Linear

I don’t think people write about failure enough. When they do, they write about how to avoid it or they write superficially about failure in the empty headed Silicon Valley way. Fail faster. Fail harder. More failure is good! Fail, fail, fail.

Give me a break.

Refusing to talk about failure is bad, but so is over-correcting and deifying it. Failure isn’t intrinsically good. It’s more like a powerful flame that does away with illusions and excuses. It’s a purifying, important force in business, but – yes – it will burn you. And it will hurt.

The oh-so-chic self help bloggers will tell you that failure is necessary to success. They won’t tell you how. Understanding how failure will help you makes all the difference here, and I’ll get to that shortly.

Even still, the undeniable fact that the road to success is nonlinear, complicated, and often unpleasant. If you’re a creator or a business owner, remind yourself of this every day. Remind yourself even when you know it intellectually to be true, because emotionally you may still feel that it is not. Tell yourself every day that the path to success is nonlinear so your heart will not ache from the heavy burden of unrealistic expectations.

Failure Probably Won’t Ruin You

Don’t risk anything you can’t afford to lose, obviously. Life isn’t the Greatest Showman. You need to mitigate risk as much as you can. Stories of people who came back from bankruptcy typically suffer from one of three flaws:

  1. Family wealth propping up the protagonist.
  2. Hollywood outright fabricated the story.
  3. Sheer luck and survivorship bias.

That said, if you’re a member of the unflashy 99% like your humble narrator, that doesn’t mean you can’t play with stakes. You need to invest in your games, your business, and yourself. You will occasionally lose. But as long as you’re not taking out massive debts, a failure probably won’t destroy you.

Most people, when they fear that failure will ruin them are worried about some kind of profound damage to their reputation. But honestly, basically every board game designer, corporation, musician, artist, and even employee has flopped at some point.

Not everything is going to be your best work, and you can’t even reliably predict what people will latch onto. That means the only way you, as a creative force, can survive is to keep creating. If you keep creating for long enough, you will, by sheer probability, make something bad or too weird for a mainstream audience.

Guess what: as long as you still have cash in the bank, you will have a chance to make something new.

Most of Life is Luck, But You Still Have Agency

Don’t get me wrong. When I say failure likely won’t ruin you, I’m still fully aware that different people have different levels of, for lack of a more precise term, privilege. Where you’re born, who you’re born to, and your formative years determine a lot of your life. After that, social mobility is possible, but difficult and this is true no matter where you go.

Random things happen. Family members get sick or injured. Bills come out of the blue. Projects fall apart. Roofs spring leaks and landlords don’t keep their promises.

Even through all this, you broadly have one choice to make: try or not try. Trying doesn’t guarantee success and not trying doesn’t guarantee failure. But if you at least try, your odds of living a happier, more fulfilled life improve.

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How a Failed Kickstarter Made My Life Better

Everything I’ve said so far has been about failure in general. That is: clarifying misconceptions, talking philosophy, and so on.

But now I want to talk about specific ways the Highways & Byways Kickstarter campaign wound up making my life better. Some of these ways have been predictable and some of them have not. But all of them suggest that the most important thing you can do is try to chase your dreams, even if you think they’re silly.

How a Failed Kickstarter Set Me Up for Marriage

Yeah, I bet you didn’t expect me to lead with that!

I’m engaged to be married in October to a wonderful woman named Maria. We met on Match.com, like nerds, and one of the first things that we bonded over was board games. I was working on Highways & Byways at the time when we first started messaging. That gave us plenty to talk about, and led to a date, then two, then three. Many months passed, diamonds were purchased, and now we’ve just sent out Save the Dates.

I’m not saying that chasing your dreams is going to help you find your soulmate. That was pure luck for me. But chasing your dreams, even if they seem silly, will give you something to talk about.

People are drawn to passion. They will be much more likely to listen to you and they will be more likely to want to be your friend. The act of publicly working on a passion project will grow your network and that can have profound, hard-to-measure, hard-to-predict positive impacts on your life in the long run.

By the time the campaign failed, we were already in a committed relationship, and after a few weeks of conspicuous self-pity masculine brooding, I moved on to the next thing, but this time, I wasn’t alone.

How a Failed Kickstarter Increased This Blog’s Reach

Shortly after I Kickstarted War Co., I launched this blog. After one campaign’s success, I was already writing Start to Finish, a long guide on how to create board games for the first time. It was detailed and ambitious, if a bit premature since I had only one game under my belt at the time.

This blog didn’t start seeing meaningful traffic until 2018, but it really took off after the Highways & Byways campaign failed.

Wait, what?

If you look at the chart above, you can see a quick succession of traffic spikes in late March to early April. Those spikes in traffic can be attributed to:

The ultimate result? The Crashed & Burned post, which talked about all the ways the Kickstarter campaign went wrong, was my most popular post yet. I got a ton of email signups, got a bunch of social media attention, and ever since the creation of that post, the amount of pageviews went up permanently and never dropped.

In short, the failed Kickstarter made this blog a lot more popular. Having regular readers makes it far easier to succeed in future endeavors.

How Highways & Byways Made Tasty Humans

Speaking of future endeavors, you know how I described failure as a “clarifying experience” a moment ago? Here’s what I mean specifically in the case of this failed Kickstarter.

  • I realized that every game needs to be made for a specific audience.
  • Because the Highways & Byways price was way too high, we created Tasty Humans in a way that made it as cheap to print as possible.
  • I started working in a team because working alone was causing me to split my attention too many ways.

Without the Highways & Byways experience, I would not have learned about the vital, unavoidable importance of product-market fit. That is, creating products that are tailor-made for a specific audience. I wouldn’t have learned cost-cutting tricks needed to make games cheaper. I would have continued working alone instead of delegating responsibily.

Pangea Games would have continued cranking out sub-optimal work and making small profits. Tasty Humans would have succeeded on theme, but probably would have made a lot less money and generally been a much worse game. That is, if it existed at all.

How a Failed Kickstarter Taught Me What I Needed to Make a Profit

Speaking of profits, we did not make one in 2018. Oh, no sir. We posted a loss of a few grand in 2018, followed by a much larger profit in 2019. So how did this happen?

First, because Tasty Humans was a much better project and game, it was actually profitable. Without Highways & Byways, this would not have happened.

Second, I realized that board games alone were not the ideal way to run a business. In addition to making board games, I also run Pangea Marketing Agency, which is quite profitable. This diversified the sources of this business’s income, making it much more viable in the long run.

Much of our success in 2019 came from landing Fulfillrite as a client. With the privilege of their business, we were able to land some smaller clients as well. And how did they find us? Through the blog, which saw a massive traffic spike that began with the failure of the Highways & Byways Kickstarter campaign.

How a Failed Kickstarter Made Me Care Less About Unimportant Garbage

One of the most underrated blessings of failure, by far, is that you finally have permission to stop doing stuff that doesn’t work. Yes, you can do this at any time, but let’s be real: you’re probably doing a lot of work that you don’t actually see the value of but you’re afraid to stop for fear that something bad will happen.

If that sounds like you, then something bad happening can be a real relief. Tweet five times a day, go to a convention every month, post on all the Facebook groups. Blah, blah, blah.

When you really get down to it, marketing comes down to two basic tasks. One: make something worth selling. Two: tell people you’re selling it. You have a lot of leeway in how specifically you choose to do that. That means if you hate Twitter, then you don’t have to use it.

After the Highways & Byways campaign failure, I shuttered at least eight social media accounts and stopped writing twice a week. I started focusing on doing less, but better. I got off the constant networking / content creation treadmill and dedicated myself to what matters. Without failure, I’d probably still be performing the same nervous rituals, dancing in faint hopes that I could make it rain.

Final Thoughts

Failure is kind of like a hangover. It feels really bad, but it gives you a very compelling reason to be better tomorrow. Powerful, painful emotional moments give us the psychological fuel and practical experience to create something better.

Chase your dreams. You might succeed, and even if you don’t, the clouds of your failures could have incredible silver linings that you wouldn’t otherwise see. It’s worth a shot 🙂

7 Lessons from Monopoly for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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Monopoly: it’s one of the oldest board games in the store. It’s one of the top 10 best-selling board games. There are over 1,144 versions of it on the Monopoly wiki. It’s also a terrible board game.

Oof. There’s a good chance I offended you with that last statement, but it’s important. Monopoly has a staggeringly low 4.4 out of 10 on BoardGameGeek. When board gamers need a game to mercilessly mock, they look no further than Monopoly.

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Monopoly is a bad game, but have a little respect.

Yes, your ire toward Monopoly is well-placed, but put down the pitchforks. It played a role in history and we have a lot to thank it for. A world without Monopoly is a world without Scythe, Gloomhaven, Spirit Island, and Terraforming Mars. It’s the reason why modern board games don’t look like chess, checkers, backgammon, and Go.

The game was created initially by socialists to show why unchecked capitalism sucks. It’s easy to forget this. This game was never meant to blow up, it just did because it was in the right place in the right time. It also just so happened to make modern board gaming as we know it viable. So be kind, and say “thank you, next.”

Besides, when we – as gamers and game developers – put aside our frustration for a moment, we can actually see Monopoly for what it is: a solid concept with bad execution. There are a lot of questionable game design decisions that, if corrected, could have made for a fantastic game. In short, we can learn a lot of lessons from Monopoly.

1. Runaway leaders and family games are a bad mix.

Of the many issues that board games can have, runaway leaders are among the worst. Sure, there are some skill games where you want the ability to leave your opponents hopelessly behind in the dust, but those games are intellectual, challenging, and for a very specific and dedicated crowd who know what they’re getting into. That’s not how family games are meant to go!

There is some bitter truth behind the joking that Monopoly makes families fight. Once you start winning at Monopoly, you can buy more properties, charge more rent, buy more properties, and…you get the idea. Early on, if you get a bad chance card, land on the railroads, and hit luxury tax, you can end up with far less cash than your opponents and from the very beginning of the game feel like it’s hopeless. That’s an awful feeling.

The key takeaway here? If you’re making a family game longer than, say, thirty minutes, you need a way for losers to catch-up. This is a critical element of good game design.

2. Long games cannot rely heavily on luck.

A lot of ink has been spilled about how luck can be used in board games. Here’s the way I think of it: unless you are specifically making a board game where your objective is literally to push your luck, a la Quacks of Quedlinburg, then don’t have a major part of the game be determined by pure luck.

How do you implement luck without forcing events upon players? Well, perhaps different dice rolls can give players different options to choose from. Give players the option to hold onto randomly selected cards for later use at a convenient time. Things like this go a long way.

If you fail to do this, well, your game will play the players and not the other way around.

3. Pacing is important – the game needs to stay interesting for the entire time.

I think I said it best in 2016 when I first wrote about Monopoly:

Despite letting leaders run away and providing inadequate catch-up mechanics, Monopoly is not a fast game. In fact, it tends to drag on for an hour or more before the obvious leader finally claims victory. You can drag a game on by being the losing player who keeps landing – by random dice roll – on properties not owned by your opponent. This is not at all hard to do, especially considering that you keep getting $200 just for rolling the dice five or six times!

4. Think twice before you make a long game.

Okay, so it’s date night. You and your beau are trying to pick out a movie. It’s a little late, or maybe one of you had a long day at work. Perhaps one of you didn’t sleep well. Your choices are:

  • A three-and-a-half-hour epic, complex, challenging movie like Lawrence of Arabia.
  • Basic slightly-under-two-hours comedy.

We like to think we’d enjoy the first option, but we often default to the latter. It makes sense, too. Your gamers are busy. They’re tired. They’ve got stuff going on. Jobs. Kids. You name it.

If you want to make a long game, you have to make it a phenomenal experience. I’m talking about full-on Twilight Imperium or Gloomhaven. Even then, only a small fraction of people are up for an eight-hour board game.

Know your audience. Most people will start getting uncomfortable in their seats if a game goes over an hour. Most board gamers, even, will tolerate up to two hours.

One of the cardinal sins of Monopoly is that it often lasts three or more.

5. Keep the rules as simple as possible.

Business Insider ran an article in 2017 where they listed six ways people were playing Monopoly wrong. To save you a click, they were:

  1. Unnecessarily taking a lap before buying properties.
  2. Taking money when landing on Free Parking.
  3. Properties are not auctioned.
  4. Refusing to let players earn when they’re in jail.
  5. Giving players extra money for landing on Go.
  6. Giving properties back to the bank after losing.

Some of these misconceptions are generations of people misteaching the game. Yet if the game were not as complicated as it was to begin with, people wouldn’t feel the need to make up rules.

It’s not even that the rulebook is long! It’s just that the rules are unintuitive and feel wrong to people when they play the game. Good game designers will look for ways to eliminate “desire paths” in their game – places where people play the game in ways that aren’t intended. They then either change their game to curtail the behavior or clarify the rules.

6. Don’t use paper money.

This may sound like a small detail, but it’s really not. Paper money is bad news. It’s a relatively expensive material, and it’s not very satisfying. You have to fiddle with it and you can’t tell denominations apart without looking. Cardboard coins, wooden discs of different shapes, and poker chips are all better options.

Board gamers – even the really casual ones – interact with your game’s soul (it’s theme, rules, and so on) through its components. That means when your components are fiddly and annoying, so is your game!

7. Watch your playtesters’ reactions.

With so many issues, it seems unlikely that Monopoly was thoroughly playtested. At the very least, it wasn’t playtested to modern standards. So many of the flaws above can be observed and corrected. Aspiring designers should take note of the many flaws of Monopoly so they can avoid replicating them!

Final Thoughts About Monopoly

As deeply flawed as Monopoly is, the world is a better place because it exists. It helped paved the way for modern board gaming while providing a great case study in bad game design. The game’s frustrating legacy has indirectly made many, many board games much better.

Next time you encounter the latest version of Monopoly in Walmart, take a moment to smile at the game. Then walk past it without putting it in your cart 😛

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