Don’t Just Build a Board Game, Build a Business

Posted on Posted in Behind the Scenes

Last week, I talked about Kickstarter, and how I could see that website changing in the near future. It occurred to me shortly after I wrote that article that many people approach board games with the intention of making money, but not necessarily making games as an end to itself. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and you can certainly make good money producing board games. The only trouble is that many of the people who see board games as a vehicle to get rich quick don’t realize that you have to build a business along the way.

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For those of you who get into board games because you’re seeking money or looking for something to do in your spare time, this is an article for you. If you’ve released a game and you’re staring down the yawning chasm of “what next,” this is an article for you, too. Those among us who want to test the waters for different industries like video games, RPGs, or toys – this is for you, too.

Think long-term.

It takes a long time to build a business. The simple fact is that if you’re not a fortunate son starting out with tons of spare cash or hands-on mentorship from early in your life, you’re going to have to learn the hard way. It will most likely take three to five years to turn a profit, and if you’re working full-time or have a family, it could take longer.

There’s no shame in taking your time! It does mean, however, that you have to plan for five or ten years down the line. You can’t merely be a trend-chaser because trends change very fast. If your intent is merely to make beautiful board games as a creative endeavor, then you should do that and have fun doing so! However, if you want to make money and you have to build a business, you have to see gamers as customers.

When you build a business, you can’t simply give customers a new variation on something very old. That may be your end result, but you have to either go through a specific process where you figure out what they need and then make that or, you know, get really lucky. You have to find your target market, figure out what they need, and then figure out how to address them. In the end, you may do this through games, or you might do it through something else entirely!

Build a business by building a platform.

Let’s say you’re convinced by now that you need to think long-term. Your intention is to make money with board games being just one possible way to do that. With board games being difficult to make and the likelihood of success being several years away, how do you build a platform that can weather the storms? A lot of things can tear you down when you try to build a business – failed product launches, dried-up funding, personal crises. Even if you have some early successes, you may not be bringing in the kind of money you hope for. You need the ability to pivot and diversify into related businesses.

In short, you need to build a brand. This is one of those pieces of advice that gets passed around on the internet so often that it becomes meaningless. Here’s what this actually means: you need to encapsulate your intentions, your abilities, and your interests into a set of associations. Those associations include a name, logo, website, social media, mailing lists, etc. If you do this right, you can explore different areas in business without losing everything. If you do this really well, then over time, you can bring in income from lots of different sources, which would leave you free to be more creative in the long run.

Build a business by building a community.

Having a platform is one thing. Having a lot of people to talk to is something entirely different. Obviously, the marketing benefits of having a large community are numerous. You can generate more leads, market test ideas, and generally spread your ideas to a larger audience. Yet that’s not the only reason to build a community or network.

When you build a business, having a community can help you meet valuable contacts. Knowing the right people can help you know which opportunities to pursue. They can help steer you away from unprofitable or unenjoyable directions. What’s more, the people you meet may very well make fantastic teammates for future projects.

Create situations where you can fail and still try again.

Last but not least, some degree of failure is inevitable when you’re talking about time frames spanning multiple years. You need to be able to recover quickly when you fail. Yes, that is a when since the experimentation necessary to succeed will invariably lead you down some misguided path at some point. This is especially true early on.

For the first year or two, your goal is simple. Don’t get knocked out of business. Stay solvent on your debts and hope that by continuing to work, build a platform, and build a community, that better days will come. After that, your job is to use the resources you’ve gained – whether that’s some hard-earned cash or brand equity – and put it to good use by making something truly profitable.

Final Thoughts

When you realize that trends change as people find different ways to meet needs – which are themselves in flux – the whole context in which you build a business changes. The scope widens. You stop seeing things in terms of “the next board game I’m going to make.” You begin to see the next way to allow people to escape their problems. Games become one of many ways to provide an intellectual challenge. Your design becomes a way to bring communities together.

Focus on people’s needs and how you can meet them. If you can do this with your own platform and your own community in your own authentic voice, then you have a much better chance of long-term success. Kickstarter could go offline tomorrow, board games could become unpopular, and customers could flee to entirely different products. Then there you would be – still be standing there with another chance to succeed.

37 thoughts on “Don’t Just Build a Board Game, Build a Business

  1. As the market grows both in consumers and offerings, it’s personal connection and building community/ empathy that will separate you from the crowd. Passion projects require more business savvy than KS did just a few years ago.

  2. I have the same thing with ebay , we use it to resell but being dependent on someone else for your business ie ebay, airbnb, ks, or anything is never a good idea

  3. Bassicly the problem of sharing responsibilities of companies releasing boardgames. Every designer wants to sell a game, but not each of them wants to participate in laying groundworks. Market gets smaller as more peopla want to release their games, just look at those shelfies, release game and forget after one print. The bigger is community and more initatives to spread this hobby, the easier is to survive in the boardgame business. Local events, some initatives lke introducing games in non gamer pubs, schools, maybe some charity stuff, cooperation with non gamer media to get it out there to newbies, not more of the same limited to veterans.

  4. My biggest fear with the growth of KS as a souce of public funding for Boardgames is that big companies transform it into a online pre-order store sucking all the money and spotlight to themselves and casting a huge shaddow on all the indies that are trying to find a way to build their own ideas…

  5. As someone starting out in the field, this is valuable advice and is a spot-on acknowledgement of the issues surrounding this type of enterprise.

  6. Great insight, and I see you don’t only explain it here, but you also show it by your brands. Great job, and keep leading the industry with your actions!

  7. I think the community part is a big factor – such as being active in the community in other locations prior to releasing a game or starting your own business platform. Having name recognition and good standing can go a long way to encouraging people to try your product.

  8. I am just a player and would never consider making a game. I appreciate the hard work that goes into the process but never even realised the business side of things

  9. I’ll try an off-topic comment. I love palindromes like ‘racecar’. What if there was a board game that could be played the same forwards as backwards?

  10. Great advice, as always. I think there’s a common misconception among first-time, beginner designers that you can just ‘throw something up on Kickstarter’ and watch it succeed. Not true. It takes a lot of work, dedication and perseverance to build a business and you have to be willing to feel like a failure before you begin to succeed!

  11. Your final thoughts essentially reference the old business adage of “find problems and sell solutions”, which has always struck me as a logical approach, but I had never considered it for game design. Thank you for sharing the new insights and for your own dedication to building a community!

  12. That’s what kickstarter is about, it’s about creating a community, which in turn are people that will support your business.

  13. I was listening to the Dice Tower talking about forming a publishing company solely to put your one game out versus forming a publishing company to publish games, plural. This is a very informative extension of that discussion.

  14. Interesting and true. A game from a “company” without business can be terrible if it doesn’t have good support facility.
    Creatief a good game is difficult. Creatief a good business is difficult as well. Doing both is a challenge.

  15. Original ideas, mechanics and themes go a long way on one’s success too. If you create the 50th Cthulhu game that came in last 2-3 years, probably not much people will look at your direction. But if your game is original and build your brand on the originality of your designs, at least you will be able to gather the attention of people who is always in search of new things to put in their ever-expanding but repetitive getting collections.

  16. Interesting way to think about a board game as just not the game but also the influences in, around and beyond it. Having a great idea for a board game is obviously just the beginning, thanks for sharing!

  17. The double edged sword of the industry. Is the creativity or the business more important. I think it’s got to be a little of both.

  18. So many people don’t give themselves room to fail. It’s all or nothing, and that’s bad for the business and the consumers.
    That’s a big downfall for people getting in via Kickstarter – they don’t have a grasp on what it takes to run a profitable business.
    Thankfully, enough people have made it work, and there’s great advice like yours to help others taking the plunge!

  19. I can see some in the board game business who are already good at building a community and it’s paying off.

  20. Excellent. I think the major piece I see missing here that I want to start exploring is “Look for a mentor.” I do this by going to playtesting events, which should be a must-do for anyone who hasn’t published before. It’s like finding a critique circle as a fledgling or even slightly-experienced author. You want feedback and help and guidance as much as humanly possible.

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