3 Things to Consider When Pitching to Board Game Publishers

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It’s quarantine o’clock and I’m responding to comments that I got on a post I wrote a few weeks ago: What confuses you about board game development? This time, I’m going to talk about pitching to board game publishers. Yes, those mysterious entities with make-or-break power over your creative dreams. Let’s talk about what they want and why they’re so weird.

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First, I’ll level with you. There are a ton of perfectly good articles online about how to approach board game publishers. Here are a few examples:

This is really just scratching the surface, too. There are plenty more articles that aren’t at the top of Google. I encourage you to read them.

In this article, I’m not going to write about how to specifically word a pitch. I’m not going to tell you the name of the right publisher to contact.

What I will instead do is talk about the mindset you need before you pitch a board game to a publisher. You could even apply this advice to any kind of product by any kind of company.

I choose to focus on this angle because I feel this is what is really missing when people talk about pitching to board game publishers. You need to give them a reason to run with your ideas.

You can sweat over every single word of your pitch, what you wear, and the attachments on your email. Or, alternatively, you can focus on building an empathetic understanding of what companies need to succeed and how you can help them.

1. Board game publishers have to meet consumer demand.

The only reliable way to build a business is to routinely meet market demand. You have to make products that fit markets that already exist. Board game publishers, who were already working with super tight margins before the coronavirus pandemic, have to follow this rule with even more vigor than most.

That means if people want worker placement games, most publishers will try to make worker placement games. If people like sci-fi or fantasy, most publishers will try to make sci-fi games, fantasy games, or both. Publishers are not gods but rather they are captains of ships upon the waves of consumer demand, which is a much mightier force.

The law of product-market fit is ironclad. Companies that ignore it go out of business. Just ask Kodak and Blockbuster. That means if your game does not satisfy a need in the market, then it doesn’t matter how well it’s designed – it won’t make money.

Publishers have a moral duty to differentiate marketable ideas from unmarketable ideas. This is how they stay in business and keep their employees paid. People’s lives literally depend upon the ability to discriminate between board games that meet consumer demand and board games that don’t.

Thus, a publisher’s condemnation of your idea, if it comes to that, is not a condemnation of you as a person. It is merely the result of a hardnosed but necessary business move governed by the inexorable laws of what people want, which often differs from what is obvious.

2. Understand consumer behavior to understand board game publishers.

If pitching to board game publishers requires understanding that they have to meet consumer behavior, then there is a logical next question. “What does consumer behavior look like in board games?” I write about this in length in People are Weird, Markets are Weirder…Especially with Board Games.

I definitely encourage you to read the whole post I’ve linked because it’s a more nuanced take than I have space for here. Nevertheless, the basic idea is that there are tons of choices, people tend to make “safe choices.” They pick themes they already like with mechanics they already like at price points at which they’ve previously purchased.

For this reason, publishers tend to bias their decision-making based on revenue shown by similar games from the past. Material costs are also a huge factor, which is part of why some components (such as meeples) are more common than others (such as minis).

Now sometimes it is okay to take a risk on a new idea. Publishers will every once in a while do something wildly innovative. Yet when they do so, because it’s so risky, they hedge their bets by making “safer games” to offset potential risks from higher-risk games.

I’m not giving publishers grief, and I hope you don’t either. Again, they’re responding to how board gamers behave so they can keep their businesses running and employees paid. This must be understood when you’re pitching to them. Try to think how publishers think!

3. When pitching to board game publishers, consider their needs and how you can meet them.

The previous two points have addressed broad needs held by every board game publisher. However, publishers are all different. They have unique audiences, products, portfolios, and interests.

Before you pitch to any publisher, look at what they’ve released and what they are planning to release. You want your board game to fit in with their overall product portfolio! After all, a hardcore wargaming company like GMT Games isn’t going to make the next Twister. Nor should they be expected to!

After you do that, research each publisher’s style too. Every publisher has different branding, a different social media presence, and a unique “voice.” Study them and figure out what makes each publishing company tick. Find some of the people involved and get to know them personally without being salesy. By doing this, you can both network and figure out what the companies are actually looking for.

Final Thoughts

Pitching to board game publishers may seem mysterious, but it’s not. They are reacting to what board gamers want, which is exactly what they ought to do. Try to understand how their companies work and how you can help.

With a more nuanced viewpoint, everything else will be easier. Once you understand publisher’s needs, submitting your pitch will come much more naturally. Instead of being a desperate designer trying to shortcut a two-year backlog, you could be a trusted partner who thinks in terms of mutual benefit.

How to Manage Your Energy & Stay Productive

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I want to take a break from talking about board game development today. Instead, I’m going to talk about how you can manage your energy and stay very productive over a long period of time. After all, this is one of the most important qualities you can have when in the middle of a long haul board game project!

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Through most of 2019, I worked a minimum of 70 hours per week. I often broke 80 hours per week, too. Thankfully, the coronavirus quarantine has given me a much-needed opportunity to return to a healthy work schedule. I certainly cannot vouch for a 70-hour workweek lifestyle, because I think productivity peaks around 55, and possibly lower.

Without getting into too much gritty detail, I had no choice. Life forced my hand and I had to get productive. I was working a day job, running a business, and taking care of a seriously injured loved one. Working this much is not aspirational or glamorous and it should not be exalted as a moral value. It is something to be survived.

In this time, I picked up a bunch of tricks on being productive. These tips helped me not only survive the do-or-die desperation of 2019 but also build the Pangea Marketing Agency and launch Tasty Humans.

I hope that sharing them with you helps you achieve your dreams as well! Failing that, I hope this knowledge at least helps you survive a tough time.

Step 1: Know the basic types of productive energy.

Not all productive energy is the same. You can be mentally or emotionally fried, but physically well enough to run eight miles. Alternatively, you can be mentally on top of your game, but too tired or sore to move across the room. You can have tremendous patience for listening to your friends’ woes while not being able to do your homework.

Now you may say to yourself, “what does it matter what I’m in the mood for? What has to be done has to be done. Get over it and just do it!”

Sometimes that’s right. If you have no control over your schedule, maybe that’s even the right attitude. But if you do have control over your schedule to some degree, I think a better way to look at it is to divide your productive energy into four basic categories:

1. Creative energy

Perhaps the most hallowed of all, creative energy is what gives you the ability to write with ease or draw or paint. You have creative energy when you feel inspired and you can easily get into the fabled flow state.

2. Analytical energy

Analytical energy gives you the ability to edit your work, be it through play-testing a game, proofreading a post, or finding ways to improve your business. When you feel this energy, it might be hard to create because of the naysaying voice in your head. Yet that same naysaying feeling is great for when you need to take a realistic look at your work and find ways to objectively evaluate it and find ways to do better.

3. Social energy

Sometimes, you feel like spending time with others. At other times, you don’t. It’s said that introverts tend to feel social energy less and extraverts more. Perhaps this is the case, although the labels of introvert and extravert are, by their nature, imprecise and subjective.

It’s not good to be holed up in your office all day (unless you’re hiding from coronavirus). Sometimes you feel like collaborating with others, having conversations, and sharing ideas. Even if you can’t go out, you can use your social energy through video calls, phone calls, and chat rooms.

4. Administrative energy

Finally, sometimes you feel like doing the dishes, organizing your desk, answering emails, and responding to voicemails. Every person in modern society has chores to do, and sometimes doing chores is the only way you can satisfy your urge to do…something. If you feel this energy coming on, roll with it!

Step 2: Adapt your work to manage your energy.

After identifying the different kinds of energy, the logical next step is to apply that knowledge for some purpose. In a perfect world, you would be able to completely rearrange your day whenever you feel “in the mood” to create, analyze, socialize, or do chores.

In the real world, we don’t quite have that privilege. Some work has to be done at a certain time no matter what. Certain quotas have to be met, taxes filed, and people spoken to. I get that.

Yet as much as you possibly can, if you want to get the absolute most productivity out of yourself, work with your energy. If you feel creative, block off time and start creating. If all you want to do is go out, find a way to socialize and plan to complete your other work at a different time. (Just be careful not to succumb totally to procrastination.)

Step 3: Find patterns and rearrange your schedule

Here is where the real magic happens. With a good understanding of the types of energy, you can begin to adapt your schedule to your natural energy cycles. You’ll notice patterns emerge over time.

I’m most creative in the morning with a resurgence after lunch. I complete analytical work in the late morning slump and administrative work in the afternoon slump. I either socialize or exercise in between to keep myself from getting too in my head.

Your patterns will be different, and this is only natural. Taking the time to observe your own behavior so that you can arrange your schedule around it is going to be one of the best things you’ll ever do. Every day, you’ll feel much more like you going with the grain instead of against it. This makes 40-hour workweeks enjoyable and 70-hour workweeks tolerable.

Final Thoughts

A little self-awareness goes a long way. You’re capable of doing more than you probably give yourself credit for. One of the best ways to meet your potential is to simply make the best use of the natural energy you feel on a day-to-day basis. It’ll make your life easier and happier 🙂

If you have any productivity tips for other readers of this blog, leave them in the comments below!

6 Ways to Find Play-Testers for Your New Board Game

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Play-testing is the most important part of board game design. It’s how you turn rough, raw ideas into polished, ready-to-play games. It’s also brutally difficult. Play-testing is a labor of love, and sometimes it’s hard to even find play-testers in the first place!

This is a follow-up on last week’s post, How to Turn Your Ideas Into Reality. In that post, I talk about how to get started with intimidating creative projects. In this post, I’ll set my sights on a very specific question: “how do you find play-testers?”

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Things to Remember Before You Find Play-Testers

Before you ask people to play-test your game, bear in mind the following advice.

First, play-testing is labor. Play-testing is hard work because it requires you to take a complex, intricate system and critique it. Many go a step further by suggesting fixes to problems found in play-testing as well. This kind of thinking is similar to management consulting or systems analysis, both of which are jobs that can command high salaries because of how difficult they are.

Because play-testing is hard, respect your play-testers time and opinions. Write down everything they say and keep a good attitude even if you disagree. Don’t argue, just listen. Remember: they’re doing you a huge favor!

Finally, go in prepared. I’ve written about play-testing before and you may find some of these guides helpful:

1. Ask friends and family

The first people you are likely to ask for help play-testing will be your friends and family. After all, they’re the easiest people to reach out to!

You might scoff at this idea, saying that family and friends are not objective enough to provide good feedback, but don’t be so quick to dismiss it. As I’ve said in an old post, play-testing with family or friends – particularly non-gamers – has benefits:

  1. You play your game with non-gamers.
  2. You play your game with people who understand what you’re trying to say.

This is to say, family and friends may not be able to tell you whether your game is fun, but they can tell you whether your game is confusing. That’s a huge step in the right direction.

2. Find dedicated play-testing groups online

One of the best places to find play-testers is online, particularly Facebook groups. There are large groups of people who absolutely love play-testing, even though it is often hard work. Reaching out to these enthusiasts is often the best way to find play-testers.

Two groups that come to mind are the Tabletop Game Playtesters Guild and Card & Board Game Designers Guild. You may also be able to find a game design or play-testing group local to where you live as well.

3. Visit your local game store

Speaking of local play-testing, once game stores reopen after the conclusion of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may very well find that your local game stores are a great place to play-test board games. I recommend calling in advance to see if this is something that people would be interested in doing there as a courtesy to the store owners.

This is a great option if you want to observe gamers playing your game in-person or in real time.

4. Create a feedback form and online demo, then advertise and offer prizes

Of course, in-person play-testing isn’t always viable. Maybe you work strange hours. Perhaps you live in a really remote area. Or maybe the world is being forced to shelter in place because of a pandemic.

If circumstances require you to, or if you prefer to, you can always play-test board games online. You can make your game testable online by either creating a print-and-play game or a Tabletop Simulator demo.

From there, you can create a feedback form for people to submit their feedback. You can then advertise your print-and-play or Tabletop Simulator demo, offering prizes to people who submit their feedback. It’s expensive, but it’s an effective way to get feedback online.

5. Run online demos or live-stream your game

Perhaps you prefer a more hands-on approach to digital board game play-testing. If that sounds like you, you can live-stream your game. For best results, I recommend creating a Tabletop Simulator demo and working with people who already stream board games. That way you can play-test with gamers and draw a crowd (who sometimes provide good feedback as well).

6. Go to play-testing conventions

While none of us will be going to board game conventions anytime soon, they will return at some point. When they do, keep an eye out for Protospiel conventions. Protospiel conventions allow board game designers to gather in one place and play-test each others’ board games. I went to one in Atlanta and it was a good experience!

Final Thoughts

Play-testing may be tough, but finding play-testers doesn’t have to be. You can run with any of the suggestions above. Give people a good reason to play-test your game and you may be surprised at just how helpful their feedback is!