What to Expect When You’re Making a Board Game: Time, Money, and Effort

Posted on Posted in Start to Finish

Over the last four articles of Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game, I’ve talked about a lot of things that are more complicated than you’d think. That includes the unexpected depth of the board game industry as well as the surprising variety of responsibilities which a self-publishing developer must handle. I’ve written about the five levels of communication game developers must master. Lastly, I’ve written about the decision-making criteria that go into choosing to self-publish instead of going through a publisher.

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One message you might be receiving loud and clear by now is simple. Game development is a lot harder than you’d expect. It takes a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of hard work – both mental and emotional.

Game development is a lot like juggling when it comes to responsibilities.

Things Have Changed in the Last 3 Years, So Read This First

This interview originally took place during the month of July in 2017. Most of this interview is still extremely relevant to today, though three things have changed in the last three years that I think you should be aware of:

First, the Trump administration introduced some new tariffs as part of the trade negotiations with China. Board games are affected, which drives the price of manufacturing overseas up.

Second, according to the shipping carrier Asendia, “due to last September’s decision at the UPU Extraordinary Congress in Geneva, which allows for a phase-in of self-declared rates beginning in July 2020, the USPS and other foreign postal administrations.” In plain English, it costs more to ship internationally now.

Third, the coronavirus pandemic has caused dramatic disruptions in the global supply chain. This is because a lot of flights and sea shipments had to be canceled on short notice. As a result, the price to ship freight went up. We don’t know yet what the long-term impacts will be.

Long story short: it will more expensive than what you read below.

Setting Expectations for Board Game Development

It’s no accident that you’ve been receiving this message. I’ve programmed it into the undertones of my last four articles. I am consciously working to set your expectations to a reasonable level. This is because I care about you and your well-being. Get a bunch of therapists in a room and you know what they’ll say? Unrealistic expectations make people miserable.

Don’t get me wrong: game development is a lot of fun and totally worth the journey. I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting into. To help me get my point across, I’ve recruited Garret Rempel of Tricorn Games. He’s the developer who created Go Fish Fitness and successfully launched it on Kickstarter in March 2017.

His game was made with standard-issue cards, no special pieces, and was made for children. He handled the project very well. Yet even with all these factors working in his favor, it still took a lot of time and money. We’re going to explore why that is so that you get a clear-eyed look at what you’re committing to.

Garret is a sharp guy and a good game dev. That’s why I hit him up on Discord with the following message:

I’m going to be writing a post soon called “Let’s Set Expectations: Time, Money, Effort.”
It’ll be aimed at letting first-time game devs know what they’re getting into with self-publishing.
Since you successfully funded Go Fish Fitness, would you be interested in working together on this article?
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation over DMs in Discord.

Who is Garret?

Brandon: If you please, go ahead and tell me a little about yourself and Tricorn Games. How long have you been making games? What games have you worked on?

Garret: My name is Garret Rempel, I’m a 34 year old Canadian father of 4. I’m an IT Consultant with a Comp Sci degree from UWaterloo.

Garret: I have been making games all my life, from building and tweaking Amiga Basic examples from a textbook when I was 8, to making Quake2 mods in my teens, to redesigning an all new dynamic version of Axis and Allies with my friends in university. Playing, modifying, and creating games have been part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Garret: However it’s only been in the last year (July 2016) that I decided to try and do something formal with that hobby. I founded Tricorn Games with the aim to craft, publish, and distribute those ideas I had been tinkering with forever. As an official company, I have released…

Garret: Flipped Off! – a card game (print & play) that was primarily a study of implementing a card-flip mechanic (where cards had different effects depending on which side is face-up) that ended up being fun enough to at least make it publicly available.

Garret: Go Fish Fitness – my first Kickstarter print release. It was designed around the concept of creating a version of a simple game that kids were already familiar with, that also incorporates physical activity as part of the game. In Canada, our winters are cold and long and kids can get a bit wild when they are cooped up indoors for long stretches. The goal of GFF was to give them a fun outlet for that energy, and the end result has been received with amazing enthusiasm by our pint-sized participants.

Brandon: A longtime interest in games – that’s super relate-able to me. I feel like a lot of people find their interest in gaming in those tender childhood years, and it seems that the both of us are no exception.

Garret: Playing Marble Madness on my Amiga 500

Brandon: Lots of N64 games and smack in the middle of Pokemon years for me

Brandon: Speaking of childhood years, do you see yourself continuing to make more children’s games or is that more of a one-off thing?

Garret: With 4 kids (ages 8, 5, 2, and 9 months), being able to make and play games with my kids is one of the driving reasons behind doing this officially. I will certainly be making more games aimed at kids of varying ages, as well as games aimed at an older or more sophisticated audience. Of the projects that I have underway, the one furthest along is a fun, lighter game from an adult perspective, but one that could easily include kids in elementary grades.

Brandon: Your house has to be a lively place with kids of those ages!

Garret: And my wife runs a home daycare – you have no idea

Brandon: Sleep must be like a long-forgotten dream by now.

Garret: Nah – all my kids were sleeping through the night by 7 weeks old, it’s less than it used to be but not unmanageable.

How long does board game development take?

Brandon: In regards to your first printed game, Go Fish Fitness, how long did it take you to make it?

Garret: From concept to fulfillment, 10 months…

  • 1 month to finalize the initial design and prototype
  • 2 weeks to contact and come to an agreement with an artist
  • 1 month of vacation (he was on vacation, my wife and I were welcoming our most recent child into the world)
  • 2.5 months to complete and finalize the artwork
  • 1.5 months to prepare the print files, finalize the box art, and print sample production copies
  • 1 month to prepare for the Kickstarter
  • 1 month to run the Kickstarter
  • 1.5 months to manufacture and distribute

Garret: The vast majority of that time was spent planning, coordinating, marketing, and simply waiting. Although it took us 10 months to go from concept to delivery, it could have been done faster – but we were in no hurry to rush it out. We took our time, made sure it was exactly what we wanted it to be, and didn’t worry too much about multitasking, preparing ahead of time for things like the Kickstarter, or being efficient in our processes. That’s the advantage of doing this for fun, we aren’t beholden to dates or deadlines. I was much more interested in learning the parts of the process and getting things right than getting them out the door.

Brandon: Ten months sounds like a pretty good time frame for a game of that weight, size, and complexity to me. In fact, I did a double-take on that manufacture time before I found out you had it done on the same continent instead of way out in China like many campaigns!

Brandon: I’d like to really drill home that time frame point, though. Even if you take out vacation, that’s 9 months – I feel like that’s a surprisingly long time frame to a lot of first time devs.

Garret: Yes, the turn around time for overseas manufacturing would have been 2-3 months easily had I gone that route. But I my case the print run was small enough that I could use a boutique manufacturer locally, since there are basically none that do large scale stuff onshore.

What should you expect the first time?

Brandon: Let’s say I’m a brand new board game dev. Hardly know a thing about making games. I ask you how long it’ll take to publish my first game. What would you tell me?

Garret: Time frames are a tough thing to gauge, a lot depends on how efficient you are, how well you can have parallel streams working, your manufacturers schedule, and how you are going to fund it.

Garret: If we work backwards, let’s assume you are going to run a Kickstarter and manufacture overseas. Budget 4 months for manufacturing, fulfillment, and delivery to your customers using a worst case scenario of 3 months from payment to a manufacturer until the boxes are on your doorstep plus 1 month to pick & pack and mail individual packages to overseas backers.

Garret: Before that is the Kickstarter campaign – assuming the best case scenario of a successful campaign, you are looking at 1 month plus 2 weeks to receive the funds. I strongly recommend having a complete product and manufacturing arrangement in place before even launching that Kickstarter, because the chances of being successful go up dramatically if you do. If you want reviews available when you launch you Kickstarter (I didn’t, but it is highly recommended) you need to have your completed prototypes in a reviewers hands 6-8 weeks before you launch.

Garret: So adding up all that time – you are looking at 7.5 months between the moment that your final gold-copy prototypes arrive at your door, and your backers receive them in your mailbox. This isn’t digital distribution… you need to have patience. Most of that time is in the hands of other people, and there is nothing you can do to speed it up.

Fulfillment for Go Fish Fitness

Garret: The rest of the time you spend, is how much time it takes to develop the game, playtest, produce the artwork, playtest, write the rules, playtest, revise, and prototype. This is the part of the process that is within your ability to control. It requires a ton of work and organization, but the amount of time you spend on it is entirely up to you and how much effort you commit.

Garret: A complex game is obviously going to take a lot more work in this phase than a simple one, but it really depends on your commitment to getting it done.

Garret: The hard part, is recognizing and accepting that even if you power through it and “finish” your game in a month, or you take your time and spend 3 years perfecting it. Once you are finished, it will take nearly 8 more months to get it published.

Brandon: A very sobering thought for new devs.

Brandon: For comparison, the time between me “completing” War Co. as a game and getting it published was about 7-8 months.

Brandon: An unexpected beautiful thing about this is that you can actually run multiple projects in parallel using the downtimes of each project. (Not that I can recommend that in good conscience to newbies.)

Garret: Perhaps – if “publication” is their primary goal. For me, publication is the after-thought. I publish and make my games available for fun. My goal isn’t to make money, it’s simply to make something fun to play. If other people get the opportunity to share in that – great! But 7-8 months wait between finishing and publishing isn’t going to cause me to bat an eye.

Garret: Actually – I highly recommend doing them in parallel. Other projects are idea factories – if you can not worry yourself about how fast you are getting things done, working on other projects can open your eyes to solving problems you have on your primary project. Right now I have 12 projects on the go. Some are just a few lines of an idea, some are in design, others are being prototyped. A number of them will likely never see the light of day, but the simple act of working on them can break new ground and reveal better ideas that will.

Brandon: It’s interesting that you say this because while I record ideas for other games, I tend to work on one thing at a time.

Brandon: This goes to show how personal creative projects are. I figure most creators will slowly find their groove over time, seeing how much they can comfortably do at once.

What is surprising about making board games?

Brandon: Speaking of starting as a game dev…

Brandon: When you first started game development, what surprised you the most?

Garret: It’s a tough question, but I would probably have to say the most surprising part was the repetition required in building components and the amount of effort that took. When you are creating a prototype you can cannibalize parts, sketch out cards, using a random assortment of pieces from other games. But when you need to perfectly craft and align the detail on 50+ unique components that vary in only small ways – that can get tedious. Then having to change each and every component every time you make a revision… that was the surprising part. The sheer amount of repetitive transformation that is required.

Brandon: The amount of iteration that goes into making a game can be jarring.

Brandon: This is one of the reasons I like using digital prototypes: Find/Replace and regex operations to change a bunch of stuff at once. But that can only go so far.

Garret: Especially when you are used to playing with friends where a rough prototype is more than good enough.

The cost of game development

Brandon: Harder question.

Brandon: If I asked you how much it cost to make a game, what would you tell me? What sort of questions would you ask?

Garret: Go Fish Fitness cost me $2,845.49 to make not including my own time (which I am treating as free) and most of those costs would scale linearly. My key questions would be – what components are you using, how much artwork do you need to commission (vs doing yourself), and where are you going to have it manufactured? Those three are the biggest variables in cost per unit, and the number of copies you are going to manufacture is going to be the single biggest cost that you are going to incur.

Brandon: I agree that the three biggest determinants of game cost are physical components, artwork needs, and manufacturing.

Brandon: As far as games go, yours is close to the simplest possible in terms of materials and it still cost in the thousands. That’s important for people to realize, because manufacturing often depends on MOQs – minimum order quantities in the hundreds. Smallest print run most places will do is around 500 games, and that’s pushing it. This is not even factoring in shipping to customers or taxes.

Brandon: War Co., by comparison, was around $20,000 to create and print and it’s a card game based on six decks. It had an enormous art demand, but the lion’s share of that cost was manufacturing (covered by Kickstarter). My personal investment was about $8,000, all of which I’ve gotten back in either cash or at-cost inventory. I was really aggressive about control costs, too. It could have easily been far worse – especially on art.

War Co. Fulfillment

Brandon: If I asked you how much effort I’d have to put in, what would you say? What sort of sacrifices would I have to make, if any?

Garret: I would say that you get out of it what you put into it. I enjoyed the work that I was doing to make a game, so it doesn’t feel like there was a great deal of effort involved. The most “work” work was researching and setting up the supply chain – which was entirely new to me and so involved the most uncertainty.

Garret: Sure there is a lot of effort involved overall, you have to put in the time to make your game the way you want – but I wouldn’t say I sacrificed anything except maybe some TV watching and computer game playing to do it. I really am doing this for the fun of it, so trading one hobby for another isn’t giving anything up. Of course you can give things up if you want to try and make a living out of this kind of work, but I am not, nor am I willing to sacrifice time with my wife and kids to do it. I work on it when I can, and I am happy with the results from that level of involvement.

Garret: I think it’s more important to set realistic expectations of what you are willing to do, and what you will be able to do with that level of commitment – measure your progress as you work, and either adjust your expectations or your work habits to match. In the end, it’s a matter of being happy with accomplishing what you can with what you have.

Brandon: The time commitment can be shocking, but it’s honestly worth every hour I’ve put in. Sounds like you feel the same.

Brandon: Agreed on the supply chain, too. That’s a bear the first time around.

What would Garret do differently?

Brandon: Okay, so one more question.

Brandon: Is there anything you’d like to go back and time and tell yourself before you created Go Fish Fitness?

Garret: Work more on building a social following and media/reviews before launching a Kickstarter, and do more media and update prep ahead of time. Really, building the game was a fantastic process – but setting up, running, and succeeding at Kickstarter – no matter how much you read about it ahead of time – you won’t really know what it’s like until you do it once. I did a lot of prep work and a lot of things right on my KS, and I still fell down on half a dozen other facets of the process that could have made it a lot more successful.

Garret: Fortunately in that regard, I knew to set my targets small and work towards a level I knew I could achieve with the intention of using GFF as my test project so that I could learn the ins and out of Kickstarter. And I gained a great deal of valuable experience in that field as a result, which went exactly according to plan. Next time I will be aiming higher and I will have the tools I need to hopefully be successful at it a second time.

Brandon: So much of Kickstarter success depends upon business skills that go beyond the purview of simple game design. As you hinted at with social media and reviews, an enormous part of the business challenge that comes along with self-publishing and crowdfunding depends upon your ability to effectively reach out to people who are interested. I cannot emphasize this enough. There are so many people who care out there, but they won’t run to you. I have a long list of things I’d do differently. My biggest area I’d change though is a variation of yours. I had a big social media following. I wish I’d had a deeper one at the time. A real community and not just a bunch of followers.

Brandon: Thank you for working with my on this guest post! It’s been a pleasure and I wish you lots of luck on your next game!

Garret: Happy to help, and thank you!

4 thoughts on “What to Expect When You’re Making a Board Game: Time, Money, and Effort

  1. Hi, thank you for all the insights. I would say that this it the true meaning of tacit knowledge transfer. Well done.
    My name is Ihab, from Iraq,
    I am a very busy guy of long hours office work. I need help in partnership to develop a game idea that I have and I have been putting it off because of my work hours. Is there any chance to have need someone from your connections to handle this project. Thank you

  2. This was so helpful! Our game has almost 500 unique cards, which were not brutal to design, but tedious at best. My work in academia prepared me to anticipate the need to revisit each card many times along the way with corrections, formatting adjustments, and those hard to spot typos. With a game centered on LGBTQ culture, history, and community-building, it took several years of research to develop a game that would be as fun as it is educational and psychologically uplifting. As you can imagine, the prompt cards needed to be revised repeatedly to respond to changes in the actual words used to describe sexual orientation and gender expression during the years leading up to the game being ready to manufacture. After a difficult search for a graphic artist, a talented DIYer friend of ours decided ‘how hard could that be?,’ so we got him a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud and he began. We weren’t even finished with the game board when he blew a gasket at the number of times we had to send things back for revisions to shapes, colors, and arrangement of elements. During a conference call, he cursed out our development team, including major investors, and it took a while to heal that friendship. He ‘thought’ it wouldn’t be that complicated. Of course, we still had to design the outer and inner boxes, game rules, contents list, and other printed materials and were fortunate enough to have another investor find a professional graphic artist to complete the job.
    I mention investors because our Kickstarter didn’t fare well. My intention was to devote as much time as needed for it but underestimated the work that goes into it. I scheduled too many game demos and conventions, so canceled the Kickstarter when it became apparent we would otherwise fail.
    In our experience, we started working with a Chinese manufacturer before the tariffs went into effect, and then the virus first his Wuhan early this year we worried that we may have to find other offshore manufacturers. We were unable to find any domestic or foreign that were as competitively priced, even taking tariffs into account.
    With the pandemic making in-person tabletop gaming difficult for some and impossible for others, we scaled back our first production run to save warehousing costs, even though the per-unit game cost is a bit higher. While we await the shipment, we’re developing a tutorial to explain how to play the game online via Zoom or Facebook.
    Again, thanks for providing, as another user noted, this tacit knowledge to prepare others for this calling.

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