How To Know When to Pivot on Your Board Game Design

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A couple of months ago, I asked the readers of this blog to send in answers to the question “what confuses you most about board game development?” I got a lot of responses, and two of them were about knowing when to pivot during a game design project. That’s what I’ll be talking about in this post.

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This week, I want to respond to a comment by Corry Damey. The question can be roughly summarized as “how do you know when to pivot your board game design?”



Why Pivot in Board Game Design?

Play-testing is notoriously difficult. Game design involves creating a system of rules and mechanics that are interpreted by players according to their expectations. Rules and mechanics alone often interact in complex, unpredictable ways. This alone makes play-testing difficult.

On top of that, people don’t always completely understand the rules of the game or the possibilities that mechanics provide. People bring their own biases and expectations. In short, gamers won’t play your game the way that you want them to.

There are far more ways to screw up a board game than to do one well. Because game designers are creators of complex, unpredictable systems, even the best ones cannot reliably create fantastic games on their first time. For that reason, game designers have to make peace with the fact that their games will have to change a lot before they are ready for public consumption.

Smart Play-Testing Principles

In an old post called Designing Tests and Keeping Records, I talk about how you can stay organized even as your game is revised dozens of times. I encourage you to read that post in its entirety.

Even if you don’t, though, there are two principles which I would like for you to bear in mind when play-testing:

  1. Take notes.
  2. Save your old work.

If you do these two things, you can always reverse a pivot. Don’t destroy old versions of your board game – make new ones instead!

Pivot Early, Pivot Often

Game designers are an intellectual crowd. The great struggle with which intellectuals will eternally battle is a simple one: the real world will never look like the one you imagine. People with perfectionist tendencies may be tempted to stick with a design that’s “almost working.” In truth, though, if you’re early in the process, your game is far more likely to need a big change than a small one. (More on that in a minute.)

Suffice it to say, if your design just feels “off,” then pivot. Pivot like you’re trying to get a big couch up a staircase.

When to Pivot: The 10 Elements Method

In 10 Elements of Good Game Design, I riff on an old Wizards of the Coast article and talk about what makes great games great. I wrote the original version of that post in 2016, and it’s the oldest post on this blog that I actually like, so I encourage you to read that one as well.

The ten elements of good game design, listed in that post, are as follows:

  1. A clear objective
  2. Constraints
  3. Interactivity
  4. A runaway leader killer
  5. Intertia
  6. Surprise
  7. Strategy
  8. Fun
  9. Flavor
  10. Hook

As I see it, if you’re missing any of the first eight, you need to pivot. Flavor and/or hooks can often be added late in the development process since they are primarily thematic. That said, if you don’t think you can add flavor or a hook without ruining theme-mechanic unity, then, yes, you need to pivot.

With that in mind, let’s talk about eight specific scenarios under which you would want to pivot your game.

1. Your game lacks a clear objective.

Without a clear objective, you cannot determine who won or who lost. Objectives are so essential to board games that not having one arguably makes your game not a game at all, by some dictionary definitions.

Having an objective, of course, is not the whole battle. If your scoring system is confusing, for example, then figuring out how to score the most points is too obscured to be playable.

2. Your game lacks constraints or has too many constraints.

If achieving the objective is incredibly simple or incredibly difficult, then odds are, you need to change either the game mechanics or the rules to make it easier or harder to win. Too few constraints rob the players of any sense of achievement. Too many constraints give your game all the fun of a trip to the DMV.

If you cannot fix this issue with a few superficial rule tweaks, you probably need to pivot.

3. It feels like nothing you do in the game matters.

Games need to be interactive. You may achieve this interactivity by having the game impose constraints upon the player, or you may achieve this by having players play against one another. No matter what, though, gamers need to feel like they are interacting with the game. Otherwise, the game feels pointless, like a first-person shooter video game that’s 90% cut scenes.

4. Runaway leaders happen often.

Allowing the leaders to run away with a game is one of the worst qualities that a game can have. Players need to feel like they have a chance to win up until the very end of the game. The only exception may be hardcore skill games.

Again, if you cannot fix this issue with superficial rule tweaks, you probably need to pivot.

5. Your game does not reward skill.

As bad as it is to allow leaders to dominate the game with no hope of the losing players recovering, it’s also bad to feel like your lead is not sustainable. Games need to have an element of inertia. Otherwise, it becomes Candyland.

6. Your game has no surprise.

Even in games with perfect information (where all the pieces can be seen) like chess, your opponent will still catch you off-guard. This doesn’t happen nearly as much at the hyper-competitive level of chess, but for your average day-to-day person, chess is a game that affords players a lot of viable strategies.

Games with no sense of surprise will become dull quickly. They risk becoming “solvable,” which is to say, they have one right way to play. If your game is headed in this direction, you probably need to introduce an entirely new mechanic.

7. Your game is all tactics and no strategy.

You need your game to give players a chance to win by merit of their skill, but not lose for the slightest tactical error. That is to say, your game needs to have an over-arching strategy instead of just a series of tactical decisions. If your game feels like it is missing this key element, you probably need to pivot the design.

8. Your game just doesn’t feel fun.

It’s a soft rule, but an important one. Games are supposed to be fun. If you make a series of small tweaks but your game just still feels like a chore, then you probably need to pivot the design on a much larger level. Even deeply flawed games can often be cleaned up if they feel fun.

Final Thoughts

Pivot early, pivot often. Creating board games is complicated and oftentimes when our designs don’t work, it’s because an underlying assumption of ours is wrong. The fastest way to solve that is often by pivoting the design entirely and trying something new.

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How Much You Should Spend on Board Game Manufacturing

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A couple of months ago, I asked the readers of this blog to send in answers to the question “what confuses you most about board game development?” I got a lot of responses, and one of them was about how to find an audience for a board game. That’s what I’ll be talking about in this post.

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This week, I want to respond to a comment by Nikhilesh Chitlangia. I want to particularly focus on part two, which can be roughly summarized as, “how much should I spend on manufacturing for my board game?”



Basics of Board Game Manufacturing

Before I talk specifically about how much to spend on manufacturing, I want to take a moment to go over how to find printers, how to create specs, and how to test samples. This will not only cover some of Nikhilesh’s other inquiries, but it’s also a necessary primer for this post.

First, when communicating with board game printers, you need to be able to create specs. This article is a must-read to tell you how to do that. This is longer and more detailed than I am able to get into for the purposes of this post.

Reaching out to Printers

After you choose materials for your game, create print files, and meet legal labeling requirements, then it is time to reach out to printing companies. Some companies you can reach out to include BangWee, LongPack, Panda Games, and PrintNinja.

Once you have specs ready to go, you can send them to the printer and request a quote. Please note that most printers who create board games at a reasonable price are offset printers, and those require a minimum print run of at least 500, and usually 1,000 or more. This is the minimum order quantity (MOQ).

When you send out specs, pay attention to the quality of their communication. Printers should provide timely and useful information, have a solid grasp of English, and should be able to recommend ways to save money on printing.


Once they send samples, you should check the quality of the games. Check the quality of ink used in printing as well as the materials used. You may not be able to get a custom sample for free, but printers should at a minimum provide a sample kit consisting of games already printed for free (or the cost of shipping only). It’s sketchy if they don’t.

Total Cost of Manufacturing

Bear in mind that when you receive a quote from the printer, you will only see the cost of manufacturing. If you are trying to figure out the cost of printing a game and having it sent to a warehouse to be distributed later, that’s a different number. That’s called the “landed cost.”

The landed cost of a game includes the cost to manufacture, ship via freight to the warehouse, plus customs and tariffs. To get to this figure, you need to add the manufacturer’s quote to a freight quote (which can be obtained freely from online freight marketplaces like Freightos). Then you need to add the cost of customs and tariffs, if applicable.

How Much You Should Spend on Board Game Manufacturing

As a general rule of thumb, the price of your game should be five times the per-unit landed cost of your game. Therefore, to determine how much you should spend on manufacturing, you need to figure out how much you can sell your game for. This article can help you determine a reasonable price.

To use a specific example, our latest game, Tasty Humans, has an MSRP of $34.99. We printed 1,250 copies for a total cost of $10,703, broken down as:

  • Manufacturing: $7,979
  • Freight: $2,127
  • Customs: $597

The landed cost for each unit, therefore was $10,703 / 1250, or about $8.50. You’ll notice our MSRP is closer to four times our landed cost than five. That’s because we have really close connections to Fulfillrite, which saves us a lot on shipping. Therefore, we felt okay about skirting the “five times landed” rule a bit.

Get Quotes Very Early in the Design Process

The single biggest tip that I have for people manufacturing a board game for the first time is in the headline. Get quotes as early as you possibly can in the design process.

It’s very helpful to know which components are going to be prohibitively expensive to ship. That way, you can remove the expensive components when your design is in an early enough stage for you to be able to find a workaround.

This is why, for example, Tasty Humans uses punchboard and not Azul-like acrylic tiles. Both the manufacturing and shipping costs would become prohibitively expensive.

Final Thoughts

Thankfully, determining how much you can spend on board game manufacturing is relatively straightforward, at least compared to advertising. Ideally, you want to be able to charge five times the landed cost per unit, which includes manufacturing, freight, and customs.

That means that once you determine an appropriate price for your game, you can back into an appropriate per-unit cost of manufacturing. If your initial quote ends up too high, you can always change the components to reduce the manufacturing cost.

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How Much You Should Spend on Board Game Advertising

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A couple of months ago, I asked the readers of this blog to send in answers to the question “what confuses you most about board game development?” I got a lot of responses, and one of them was about how much to spend on board game advertising. That’s what I’ll be talking about in this post.

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This week, I want to respond to a comment by Nikhilesh Chitlangia. I want to particularly focus on part one, which can be roughly summarized as, “how much should I spend on advertising for my board game?”



This is a tricky question for two reasons:

  1. It presupposes that you have adequate funds to advertise in the first place, which is not true for many creators.
  2. It also presupposes that you have the ability to create an ad that leads to sales, which is also a pretty big assumption.

For the sake of the rest of this post, we’re going to assume both are true. That is, we’re assuming you have the money needed to bankroll your game and you have a decent understanding of how to make a good ad.

Basics of Board Game Advertising

Let’s go over some of the basics of board game advertising before we start talking hard numbers. First, board game advertising is primarily online. I cannot readily think of any print publications or other traditional media that would provide a suitable outlet for advertising products in such a niche market.

With this in mind, there are five basic ways to advertise your board game online:

  1. Facebook
  2. Instagram
  3. Board Game Geek
  4. Paid previews
  5. Pinterest

That last one might come across as odd, but I’ve included it because I believe that Pinterest is a generally underrated website for advertising to niche audiences. Advertising pins blend in really well on boards.

With previews, you want to make sure you pay someone with a large audience who likes games like yours. From there, they will handle the rest. All you have to do is share the video when it’s done.

As for the other advertising channels, you must follow these basic principles:

  • With everything but Board Game Geek, make sure you target only people who like board games. If you can narrow down your audience further from there, that’s even better.
  • You need a great picture of either the game box or the game being played. You might experiment with videos as well.
  • When additional text is required, as with Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest, a simple, straightforward description of the game goes a long way. We got a really good response with the following copy for Tasty Humans: “Become a monster. Eat villagers. A puzzle-solving, tile placement board game for 1-4 players.”

Metrics for Ad Spending

When you start advertising, you will likely be inundated with acronyms and jargon. A lot of people obsess over CPC (cost per click) or impressions (number of ad views). Those are important, but they’re not the most important, at least not strategically.

Three metrics matter more than everything else. They are ROAS, CAC, and LTV.

ROAS is return on ad spending. You can calculate by dividing the amount of revenue an ad campaign makes by the amount you spend on it. According to BigCommerce, an ROAS of 4 is good. You can grow a business on 3, though many other businesses require 10 or more.

Personally, when it comes to board games, I shoot for a ROAS of 5. I like to spend $5 on ads for every $25 I get on a game.

CAC is customer acquisition cost. That is how much you pay to get a brand new person who has never bought from you to buy from you for the first time.

LTV is lifetime customer value. That is how much the average customer spends on your business once they become a customer.

LTV and CAC are often used together. You generally want the LTV of a customer to be three times the CAC. This is a relatively lofty goal, but one I think you should strive for as much as possible.

What’s important about all the metrics above is that you want to watch the amount of revenue your ads are bringing in, not necessarily the cost per click. If it takes 50 clicks to get a sale, but the cost-per-click is $0.10, then it costs $5 to make a sale. If your cost-per-click is $1.00 but a fifth of clicks buy your game, then it also costs $5 to make a sale.

(That said, if you really need a CPC number, I shoot for $0.20-0.30 on Facebook with 1-in-20 making a purchase.)

How Much You Should Spend on Board Game Advertising

As I see it, there are two different methods you can use to determine how much money to spend on board game advertising.

1. The “How Much Money Can I Afford to Lose” Method

Believe it or not, this is the method I used with the Tasty Humans Kickstarter. My team and I collectively spent around $2,500 in marketing and ended up gaining around $28,000 between Kickstarter and BackerKit in return. We figured we might be able to raise $15,000-18,000 at our level of marketing spending, but the game exceeded our expectations.

We chose the $2,500 figure simply because that’s the amount we were willing to spend and because we would not feel bad if we underperformed.

This method has its shortcomings, though. You pretty much have to be willing to spend at least $1,000 to get a decent amount of attention with advertising. You can’t expect magic to happen without spending a substantial amount of money.

2. The Desired Revenue Method

Let’s say that you have a great abundance of capital available to you right now. Instead of your limitations being set by the amount you are willing to lose, they are set by what you desire to gain.

In this case, if you want to make a certain amount of revenue, then to determine your advertising budget, you can divide the revenue you want by your expected ROAS. That is to say, if you want to make $50,000 and expect an ROAS of 5, then you should spend $10,000 on advertising.

This method is pretty handy, but be careful. Advertising spending can have diminishing returns if you spend a truly enormous amount on it. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that you will receive the ROAS for which you are hoping.

Advertising is Not the Only Way to Generate Leads

For all this talk of advertising, I want to make something clear. You can either market with time or with money. Advertising is very expensive in terms of money, but not so bad in terms of time. I love ads because they are simple and allow me to continue with other aspects of my busy life. They are not, however, a silver bullet. You need to generate leads (that is, potential new customers) in other ways.

First and foremost, your game needs to be great. This goes without saying, but I’m still saying it because it’s that important! If your game isn’t great for a specific group of gamers, no ad will save you. Likewise, if it is truly great, your odds of getting word-of-mouth or “being discovered” are dramatically increased.

Content marketing is a great way to spread the word about your game. That includes writing blog posts, using social media, live-streaming the game, showing up on podcasts, and so on. The point is: give people something to consume and it will help spread the word of your game and your brand.

Reviews are tremendous at establishing trust and are relatively low-cost, often only costing the price of a prototype and shipping. You need some amount of reviews for people to take you seriously and buy in the first place. Beyond the fifth or sixth review, though, additional reviews serve primarily as a way to be mentioned in front of others on their media channels, thereby generating leads.

Play-testing with others and generally networking – online or offline – is a way to generate leads, too. Just make sure you don’t come across as too salesy. Be genuine, try to have a good time, and help them with what they need help with as well.

Lastly, making in-roads with board game distributors is also a good way to market your game. Not only will they buy your game outright sometimes, but they will also shelve it online or offline in ways that people are likely to see.

Final Thoughts

There is no hard and fast rule on how much you should spend on board game advertising. All marketing efforts should be examined in terms of how much revenue they bring in. Once you confirm that your advertisements are bringing in enough money, then your spending should be determined based on either how much you can spend or how much you want to make!

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