4 Lessons from Everdell for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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Last year, Everdell by Starling Games raised nearly half a million dollars on Kickstarter. It has remained a popular board game since, regularly topping out the Board Game Geek Hotness and showing up multiple times as a giveaway prize in Pangea contests. With that in mind, we owe to ourselves to spend a little time studying its success!

Everdell is a worker placement, tableau-building board game. As the name suggests, Everdell has a fantasy setting, and is indeed named for a charming valley within the game’s world. The setting is described as being “beneath the boughs of towering trees, among meandering streams and mossy hollows, a civilization of forest critters is thriving and expanding.”

As you can imagine, this is right up the alley of many dedicated board gamers. But why exactly is that?

 

1. Cute fantasy themes go a long way.

I don’t know what exactly it is about fantasy themes, but board gamers love them. Indeed, readers, moviegoers, and TV bingers all love fantastical settings. This can range from cute and furry settings like those in Everdell and Root to complex worlds like Lord of the Rings or even gritty fantasy epics like Game of Thrones.

Let’s be honest. Life is freaking hard. Sometimes it’s so hard that you don’t even want to face it head-on. Thus, fantasy settings give us a harmless way of unplugging from all the things that stress us out. Science fiction, another perennial favorite of board gamers, is basically fantasy with a thin veneer of science applied. If you don’t believe this, harken back to classic novels like Frank Hebert’s Dune. The shared lineage between science fiction and fantasy is on full display there.

This isn’t necessarily a lesson explicit to Everdell, but the unique history of Starling Games makes it a relevant one. A quick look at the Starling Games About Page states that “Starling Games was launched…in 2018.” In other words, Everdell put a brand new company on the map. That’s a testament to just how much fantasy themes connect to people. That kind of rapid connection to an idea only comes as a direct result of an emotional need being met.

 

2. Worker placement is popular for a reason.

Like many games, Everdell uses worker placement. In the case of Everdell, workers are placed to help players gather resources, draw cards, and take special actions.

Worker placement is also known as action drafting. This is relevant because it means that players are competing for the permission to perform certain actions in the pursuit of certain goals.

Worker placement is a very simple concept with really profound implications. You can play based on just your needs or with the intention to block your opponents from meeting theirs. There is a reason this mechanic is present in many BGG Top 100 Games such as ViticultureCavernaA Feast for Odin, and Agricola.

Sometime around 2018, I did a major poll asking people what their favorite themes and mechanics were. I can’t find the link to it, but the upshot is that fantasy themes and worker placement mechanics blew everything else out of the water. Everdell is popular in part because the creators identified what gamers liked and simply gave it to them!

 

3. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel if your game provides enough variety.

Maybe I’ll get some heat for this, but I’ll just go ahead and say it. Everdell doesn’t really do anything new. It’s another worker placement fantasy board game with good components.

This is not an insult.

There’s an old concept in business called “second but better.” Indeed, the most innovative ideas often fail or turn out mediocre at first, so your best experiences with games (or otherwise), often come from masterful creators on well-worn territory.

A commenter on Board Game Geek, jamesjacob, said it better than I possibly could here, so I’ll just quote him.

Don’t let the charming artwork fool you. This is an impressive game that combines tableau-style engine building with classic worker placement mechanics. On the surface, the rules seem pretty ‘I’ve-seen-this-100-times-before’, but the inter-connectedness of the cards makes for engaging decisions and pulling off combos is very satisfying. 

 

4. 3-D components are a gimmick, but they helped the game draw attention.

On the Board Game Geek ratings page for Everdell, I noticed a few particularly grumpy gamers complained that the fancy 3-D tree included with Everdell does nothing. Fair enough – Everdell could be played without the tree. But I think these gamers are missing the point.

It’s no secret that the board game market is oversaturated and noisy as can be. Anything that can break through the sheer deluge of sameness that defines board game Facebook groups and Twitter feeds is valuable. And indeed, I think it’s necessary if you want to have a shot at making good money on an individual game.

I’ve stated many times before that gimmicks cannot substitute for actual quality gameplay. At the same time, I think gimmicks are necessary to making people look for long enough to absorb the deeper, better qualities of games. The same is true even for books and movies that come out these days. That’s why books have clicky titles and that’s why movie trailers show scenes out of context. They fight for your attention so that enough people stick around to see the real artistry.

 

Final Thoughts

Everdell is an excellent example of a well-made game perfectly tailored for its audience. It’s a fantasy worker placement board game in a hobby industry full of people who love that kind of experience. It isn’t particularly innovative, but it’s well-crafted, so it doesn’t have to be. And it has just the right amount of gimmickry to make you pay attention.

Not bad for a civilization of woodland creatures!

How to Sell Your Board Game Outside of Kickstarter

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It’s been over a year in the making, and we’ve finally arrived: this is the last article in the Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game series. You’ve learned how to design and develop a game, build an audience, and market your game. You’ve learned how to run a Kickstarter campaign, fulfill your promises, and even recover from failure.

After you have completely finished your game, settling all responsibilities associated with the Kickstarter campaign, that leaves one massive question: “what next?” With a successful project behind you and a head full of useful experiences, your options are wide open. You can make new games, start a business, or even simply make your game a one-off to bring in passive income.

Let’s talk about wrapping up your project. In this, I’ll briefly go over some ways you can sell your game outside of Kickstarter. This is no exhaustive guide. It’s just enough to get your wheels turning.

 

 

As I see it, there are ten broad ways you can sell your game outside of Kickstarter. There are probably a lot more that I’ve not even thought of, so I encourage you to chime in if you see something missing in the comments below!

 

1. Take pre-orders.

About a month ago, I published an article called How to Take Pre-Orders when Your Board Game Kickstarter Ends. That will give you an idea of how you implement a pre-order system. The benefit of taking pre-orders is pretty clear: you can continue earning money while your inventory is being manufactured and shipped to your warehouse. It helps keep the hype train going too.

Need help getting started? Look into these pre-order systems:

 

2. Sell your game on your own site.

This is almost identical to taking pre-orders, except you sell your game after it’s being shipped to your warehouse. With a few quick edits, you can turn your pre-order system into an instant sales system. All you have to do is tweak the wording and connect your shopping site with your fulfillment company’s systems. The specific way you do that depends on your shopping site software and your fulfillment company’s software. The important thing is that you know you’re able to automate this process!

There are a lot of ways you can do this that don’t require you to be a tech wizard. Here are some apps that you can use to set up an eCommerce store easily:

 

3. Sell your game on Amazon and other online shopping sites.

You can sell your game on Amazon just about as easily as you can sell your game on your own website. Even though Amazon and other shopping sites take a significant chunk of your sales as part of their commission, they can bring you lots of customers.

Don’t just limit yourself to Amazon, though. There are other great online shopping sites that you can get your game listed on, such as:

 

4. Sell your game at conventions.

A lot of board game companies make substantial sales at conventions such as Gen Con and Essen. Even smaller conventions are a viable option. You’ll need to research each convention you plan to attend to ensure that they are appropriate forums for selling your game. If they are, a nice-looking booth can draw quite the crowd!

A few conventions to consider include:

  • Any local convention within 250 miles of you, regardless of size
  • Gen Con
  • Essen
  • PAX Unplugged
  • UK Games Expo
  • Dice Tower Con
  • Origins Game Fair
  • CMON Expo
  • BGG Con

 

5. Get on the shelves of your local game store.

Your friendly local game store can be another way to sell your game offline. You may be able to get management to pick up a few copies and carry it in their store. Many game stores are happy to help locals get their businesses started, provided you bring a quality game to the table!

Not sure how to have this conversation? Check out this Facebook group. It is incredibly insightful for those seeking a peek into the minds of gaming store owners.

 

6. Create events and sell your game there.

Building a community is a great way to build an audience. One especially effective way to build a community through scheduling events that excite or intrigue people. You can give away games, host game nights, or do live-streams. There are so many possibilities here. Whether you make events online or offline, it helps raise brand awareness. That can go a long way!

 

7. Get on the shelves of a mass-market retailer.

I’ll be honest. I do not yet know exactly what you need to do to get your game in Target, Barnes & Noble, or other large stores that sell board games. Getting stocked in a mass-market retailer is not something you do on a whim, so you’ll need to plan this out well in advance. Just be aware that mass-market sales are another avenue by which you can sell your game.

Here are a few mass-market retailers who carry hobby board games:

  • Barnes & Noble
  • Books-A-Million
  • Target
  • Walmart
  • Best Buy
  • GameStop

 

8. Build a backlog of games.

Sometimes the best way to sell your game is start a new one. Building new games brings attention to you and keeps your name in people’s minds.

 

9. Release expansions to your game.

If your game has substantial brand power, you might be able to release expansions and make some good money that way! This isn’t for everyone – releasing expansions and making money doing so requires a pretty strong game in the first place. If you’ve got an engaged fanbase, ask them for their ideas and see if you can make something they’d like.

 

10. Sell merchandise.

You don’t have to stick to selling games. You can sell posters, art books, or even e-books/novels of lore (for more story-heavy games). Think about a world bigger than just a single game.

Once you’ve completed your first game, possibilities begin to open up. This article is not a detailed guide like many of my posts. Rather, my intention here is to make you think about how many directions you can go in after you publish your first game.

Don’t be singularly focused on a single game or even the board game industry at large. Step back, survey your accomplishments, and appreciate the bigger picture. Most of the skills covered in Start to Finish: Publish and Sell Your First Board Game are transferable to other industries, and even life in general.

 

Final Thoughts

Pursuit of passion doesn’t always lead to success, but it does lead to a better understanding of yourself and the world around you. After fully creating a game and managing the various processes that go into doing that, you’re equipped to take on bigger challenges than you’ve faced before.

Think about what comes next. How you choose to sell your game from here on out sets you up for your next adventure.

Good luck and stay tuned for an entirely new series of blog posts starting next week 🙂

4 Lessons from Dinosaur Island for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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A couple of years ago, Dinosaur Island was a massively successful game. It raised over $2 million on Kickstarter and stayed in the BoardGameGeek hotness for a really long time. Even now, two years later, the game’s name has enough cultural cachet to lead to the most popular board game giveaway Pangea has ever sponsored.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to talk mostly about Dinosaur Island’s superficial qualities. That entails theme, components, and art. While the gameplay is certainly good in its own right, I believe it’s the aesthetic of the game that led to its popularity and, as such, the lessons in this post are dedicated to analyzing that aesthetic.

With that in mind, here’s a quick overview of the game from Board Game Geek:

In Dinosaur Island, players will have to collect DNA, research the DNA sequences of extinct dinosaur species, and then combine the ancient DNA in the correct sequence to bring these prehistoric creatures back to life. Dino cooking! All players will compete to build the most thrilling park each season, and then work to attract (and keep alive!) the most visitors each season that the park opens.

 

1. Dinosaur Island nails nostalgia.

Take one good look at this game. You know full well which era is being depicted and which movie is being imitated. It’s no secret that Millenials – which represent a glut of the board game market – love 90s nostalgia (which is, indeed, their own childhood).

Let’s be clear. Nostalgia works. It’s an effective lever for making money. Dinosaur Island is extremely effective at monetizing nostalgia.

 

2. With a distinctive art style, you will stand out on social media.

At a casual glance, Dinosaur Island might seem like a throwback. After all, it harkens back heavily to the very 1990s film Jurassic Park and the Michael Crichton novel that preceded it. The resemblance even toes the line of plagiarism (though I personally see the game as more of a loving tribute).

Sure, the neon and pastel colors make you think the game was made somewhere between the end of the Reagan administration and the pilot episode of Friends. But it’s really not a throwback. In fact, Dinosaur Island has a distinctly modern art style calculated for the social media age.

So let’s say you’re a modern-day board gamer. You’re scrolling through your board game heavy feed. You see pictures of gritty, realistic sci-fi worlds and detailed fantasy universes. There are grim, dark games and simple, abstract games. Nothing quite looks like Dinosaur Island, though, so you stop scrolling listlessly and double-tap like. Others like you do the same and the buzz builds. This same principle applies to retweets, Facebook ad efficiency, your ability to spot the game across the room at a convention, and so on.

It pays to look different.

 

3. Respect the power of the custom meeple.

It seems I can seldom emphasize enough the importance of the tactile experience of board games. After all, our world is rich with entertainment options the likes of which our distant ancestors could have only dreamed. There are only two things that meaningfully separate a board game from its video game counterpart. The first is socialization in real life with other people, and the second is the physical experience of components. Only one of those comes in the box.

 

 

With this in mind, a keen observer of the board game industry will notice there are a bunch of ways you can create unique physical experiences. You can use creative three-dimensional gameplay like Colt Express or props like Ca$h ‘n Guns.

Custom meeples, too, are a popular way of creating a wonderful physical experience. In many ways, they are actually superior. They are often the most cost-effective components when it comes to crafting unique experiences, often costing as little as $0.03 or $0.04 per piece in bulk when carved out of wood.

Gamers love custom meeples, they’re cheap, and they photograph well. Hard to beat that!

 

4. No matter how pretty the theme, don’t skimp on the game.

I’ve spent the entirety of this post so far praising the superficial qualities of Dinosaur Island. It’s true – the success of Dinosaur Island can be largely chalked up to the way it looks. That means art style, components, and theme as a whole.

But don’t succumb to the cynical conclusion that you can polish garbage and sell it for $2 million on Kickstarter. That’s just not true. As seemingly illogical as consumer behavior can be, gamers are at least sophisticated enough not to buy a truly bad game. To believe otherwise is to reduce gamers to mindless consumer drones, which is simply not the case.

A quick scroll through comments on Board Game Geek reveals statements such as the following:

  • “To my great surprise, this quickly became one of my wife’s favorite games… The theme makes it easier to teach, and once you’ve played a few times, the level of depth increases and you’ll really burn your brain at least a couple turns (but not too much).” – FranklinT
  • “This is a very good eurogame which is easier [to learn] than it appears at first sight.” – Glasgow17
  • “Jurassic Park the game is fun, light-hearted but heavy enough on strategy and a solid experience.” – Dudewiththeface

I interpret comments like the above as being indicators that the game meets at least a certain minimum expectation of quality. You see a lot of comments coming from people who find themselves in the unique position of being surprised by the quality of the game.

Not convinced? Consider one more factor. The number of board game reviewers with a truly substantial reach is pretty small and they constantly have to deal with a deluge of games. Many, upon reading rule books or playing a game, decline to provide a review when a game isn’t good. That didn’t happen here. If it did, the game wouldn’t have the reach needed to raise $2 million. So in summary, no – beauty cannot substitute for quality.

 

Final Thoughts

Dinosaur Island is a master class in branding through products. The game is keenly tailored for the audience it targets. Its art, components, and use of late 80s / early 90s nostalgia made the game stand out in a noisy world. From its success, we can all learn how to create games with enticing themes.