Choose Your Own Adventure: Self-Publish Board Games or Not?

Posted on Posted in Start to Finish

To get the Start to Finish series going, I’ve spent some time discussing games, game development, and the amount of careful messaging that is needed to create and sell a great game. At this point, you may be beginning to have some healthy doubts about the benefits and drawbacks of self-publishing a game. After all, if you self-publish, you are responsible all these decisions and their results!

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The Start to Finish series is intended to help you self-publish a game for the first time. Yet that’s not the right decision for everybody because there are so many factors to consider. Self-publishing could totally kill the magic of game development for you, depending on what drew you to it in the first place. My guide will be handy whether you self-publish or go through a publisher. But it’s time for you to ask yourself a big question:

Do I really want to self-publish?

Let’s pro/con both options…

The following excerpt was originally from Is self-publishing your board game a good idea?

Why Self-Publishing is Great

Without a doubt, the most compelling reason to self-publish your board games is the fact that you have complete creative control. You are not forced to make any edits to your work for any reason. Conforming with genre standards is less of a priority. You can take big risks and do strange things. Marketing doesn’t have to be your first consideration. You do not have to bend to the will of companies which have their own standards and norms.

As an individual creator or a creator within a small, independent group of creators, you’ll be able to connect with others on an individual basis. You do not have to run your ideas across a company before talking to others. Just do it because you can. You can reveal as much as you want to reveal, you can completely open your game up to the public, or alternatively, keep everything hidden. People will know you by your name and not just as someone with Asmodee, Stronghold, or some other publishing company.

When it comes to money, you’ll get all of it if you work alone. If you work within a small group, you’ll walk away with a much bigger share than any publishing company would be willing to offer you. Even if you sell less, the profit margin is much, much higher.

Why Self-Publishing Sucks

Though you might be walking away with a higher percentage of the profits, the odds of making a profit are pretty slim. In fact, you’re a lot more likely to sell a lot of units if you go through a publisher. Even if you make less money per unit, you could still come out better when you’re not trying to sell the game alone or in a small group. Selling is really, really hard. It takes a lot of time to learn and it’s an entirely separate discipline from game development or any other responsibility that you will handle on a regular basis.

If you self-publish, there will be enormous demands on your time. This is true for solo developers and small groups. You do the game development and playtesting. You go find the art. Promotion and Kickstarter are your jobs, as is shipping. Accounting and taxes fall within your responsibilities. You are quality assurance. You are customer service. Most of your time will not be spent designing.

If the time and money issues don’t give you pause for a minute, consider the high odds of failure. Publishers might reject you, but they won’t let you publish total garbage. Your game can still flop if you go through a publisher, but it’s a lot less likely because publishers don’t want to take chances on things that probably won’t succeed. Nobody can stop a self-publisher from failing.

Why Publishers are Great

Going through a publisher may strip you of some degree of creative freedom, but it will free up a lot of money and time. Publishers handle the marketing, the selling, and often they cover the art, too. You have to spend money making a nice prototype for publishers, sure, but you don’t have to get deep into the behind-the-scenes business processes. Going through a publisher will give you the best chance for your work life to be “me and my game.” They take care of the grittiest work for you.

On top of taking care of the ugliest work and doing it better than you ever could with your limited time, the publishers will probably sell more than you would alone. Publishers have all sorts of vetting mechanisms in place that keep you from going to market with a bad game. Once you jump through their hoops, your odds of having a successful game are much higher than if you self-published.

Why Publishers Suck

Of course, the cost of having a company swing the full weight of their art, marketing, and selling staff behind your idea comes with a hefty cost. They’ll ask you to make changes. You won’t get many chances to comply, so if you don’t make the changes, they probably will for you. You have to sacrifice your creative control to some degree when working with a publisher because they have certain business practices that predate you. They are bigger than you – that’s the key thing to remember. They don’t have to listen to you, and they’re probably better off if they don’t.

However, don’t assume you’ll get to the point where they ask you to make changes. Your odds of outright rejection are very high. You’ll probably have to ask multiple publishers if they are interested. Sometimes it’s because your pitch is bad, but sometimes it goes beyond you. Publishers play by their own rules, and it’s often in their best interests not to disclose all the rules that they follow. You have to watch them, make your best guess at what they want, give them a great pitch, and be okay picking yourself up in the probable event that they’ll reject you.

Let’s suppose that your game does take off after you avoid rejection and make extensive changes. You won’t walk away with much cash. In fact, it’ll have to be a Pandemic or Ticket to Ride sort of blockbuster to really, really line your pockets. Then again, you might still be better off than you would be self-publishing.

Self-Publishing: Long-Term Trends

In just the last five years alone, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Patreon, and other lesser crowdfunding platforms have continued to grow. Crowdfunding is more popular than it has ever been before, which is great because this is one of the most popular ways to produce indie board games.

On top of that, eCommerce sales are continuing to grow at an even faster rate than the board game industry. Selling games directly to the gamers is more possible than it’s ever been.

Of course, at the same time, indie board games are getting a lot better. Production values have massively improved in the last five years and board games are outright fancy these days. With fancy components and artwork comes a high cost, meaning that there are while there are fewer explicit barriers to self-publishing, there are far greater implicit barriers to self-publishing. Gamers just expect more.

There is a silver lining to this. Board games are showing up in all sorts of unexpected places. Gift shops, boutique stores, and even churches. It’s my opinion that self-publishers on a tight budget may not be able to compete with other hobby games on Kickstarter. They may, however, be able to make the best educational game about Utah’s state history for local schools. Micro-markets like this are growing.

Traditional Publishing: Long-Term Trends

Traditional publishers have been more heavily using crowdfunding in the last several years. I expect this trend to continue. This is because crowdfunding feels a lot more legitimate than it did ten years ago. Backers practically treat Kickstarter like a store.

Traditional publishers are a lot more capable of handling the ever-increasing production values of hobby board games. However, this comes at a cost: eliminating bad ideas. That means publishers, who are already selective, are likely to be more selective in the future. That means they’ll have increased leverage, and may offer even less favorable terms to designers.

That may sound icky, but don’t simply write off the traditional publishing route. Running a business is hard work, and it’s not something you should do lightly, no matter what the current trends.

Bringing it All Together

As you can imagine from the above, the decision to self-publish or not to self-publish is an incredibly personal one. A lot of people don’t consciously realize that it is, indeed, a choice that you have to make. I write with the intention of speaking specifically to self-publishers, because that is what I know, that is what I’ve done, and that is what I like. Yet either path could lead you to obscurity or fame, destitution or wealth, happiness or misery. You have to know your own motivations and make your own carefully considered decisions.

Everybody wants freedom, or they at least think they do. The decision to self-publish comes down to one question: how much responsibility are you comfortable taking to make games? There is no wrong answer to that question.

The beauty of this is that you don’t have to make a decision today. By being aware of the alternatives, you’re already in a good situation. As you’re designing the early versions of your game, you’ll get a sense of what you like and what you don’t like about making games. When it’s time to start thinking long-term, then you’ll have to make the decision to self-publish or not.

11 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Adventure: Self-Publish Board Games or Not?

  1. Thanks for the information! I would love to see some actual numbers for each option. I am in the process of building the first prototypes of my game and starting to get a better feel for the costs involved with self publishing.
    How much do people spend on self publishing? Break it down into steps.
    How much do you get from a publishing house? A percentage of sales?
    Any real life examples for both options would be awesome!

    1. Hi Michael – glad the information has been useful for you!

      To be honest, specific numbers vary pretty heavily based on different games. For example, when creating Tasty Humans, we were super conscious about keeping costs under control. We spent about $2,500 on the creation of the game (art, early prototypes, etc.) and then another $2,500 on marketing (Rahdo video, Facebook ads, review copies and postage). Many games cost much, much more! And card games cost less.

      Regarding a publishing house, I’ve heard designers tend to receive royalties is the 2-5% of revenue range. Again, this differs heavily by publishing house. It’s kind of like job offers in the sense that there’s enormous variation in what you’ll see.

      1. Hi Brandon,
        Thanks for all the great info. I have a game I designed that has been well received by everyone that has played it. It’s easy to learn and play, it’s fun and competitive and it does not have any age or education restrictions. The problem is it would be very easy for someone to copy it or even make their own game with objects around the house. Is it hard to get a trademark for a game like this?

  2. i am based in the UK and have designed a boardgame, fantasy themed, area control on a board style. card based combat, resource management and take control of cities to win the game. looking for a UK publisher to take it on. please contact me via here if interested

  3. This is so cool…im working on a Board Game call Mind Connection…first ever done and I think it will become bigger than most famous games on the market. I submitted it to Hasbro n they kick me down to some of there Minor League publishers hoping it gets on the market…byt I want to have some fun with it first before going main stream while working on another similar to Chess n Checkers mix into one…I write books mostly Sci-Fi that seem to be doing well on google as we speak….I love the commits.

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