4 Lessons from Exit Games for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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I’ve written before about my fondness for Escape Rooms. Certainly, board game designers can learn a lot from well-designed escape rooms. The only trouble, of course, is that being in a small indoor area with a handful of other people in close contact isn’t exactly a great idea right now. Exit Games by Kosmos are the closest we can get to the authentic in-person experience right now.

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I’ve wanted to write about Exit Games for a while, but it’s tricky! You see, the whole concept of the game is that you are trapped in [insert place] and you have to solve riddles to get out. The game is full of mysteries, riddles, and puzzles. They can also only be played once due to their nature.

This, of course, means that any specific discussion of any particular Exit Game will ruin the game for you. However, I will talk about them generally and summarize key lessons that I’ve learned from the six or seven that I’ve played so far. If you’re a fan of these games, don’t worry, I will not spoil them!

1. Use components uniquely.

Exit Games come in small boxes. Each one comes with two decks of cards, one containing riddles to be solved and another containing hints in case you get stuck. They also all contain a booklet full of riddles and clues as well as a short leaflet containing basic instructions. You will also find unique components in many of the Exit Games, though the specifics will vary from game to game.

It’s not a lot to work with, and yet Exit Games make ingenious use of their limited physicality. I have seen Exit Games deploy the box, inserts, required legal labeling on the back, and bar codes into the game. In other cases, players are asked to use scissors, markers, and even candles to modify the game and give it new life.

After a few games, the novelty wears off and you begin to see patterns. I don’t blame the creators for lack of cleverness, though, since there are only so many ways you can use limited parts. The point is: they make a lot out of a little, and game designers, particularly ones working with a tight budget, could really learn from this.

2. Give the players a way to get unstuck.

Some of the puzzles in Exit Games, much like in real-life Escape Rooms, are devilishly hard. Other puzzles are more obvious, but for whatever reason, you hit a wall and you spend 15 minutes making zero progress. This is a motivation killer and it’s something you absolutely have to avoid as a game designer, even if that means reducing the purity of the game’s challenge.

Exit Games find a workaround. They give their players the opportunity to take hints, but only if they want them. If you want to play with no hints, you can. It will probably take you hours to complete the game, but it can be done. Similarly, if you’re just in it for fun and four minutes of puzzled grinding is too much, the hint cards are always there to help you.

3. Use technology to enhance the experience.

Board games are special largely because they are an analog, physical hobby. Being able to step away from the computer screen in our digital era, particularly under coronavirus-related lockdowns, is both an economic luxury and a psychological necessity. That doesn’t mean that board games are only for Luddites, though. We’ve seen the industry adapt to concepts as alien as digital play-testing.

Kosmos was smart and they released a companion app for your smartphone to be played alongside Exit Games. If you use their app, it will count down a timer, calculate your score at the end based on the hints you use, and play a soundtrack during the game.

You don’t need the app. It’s purely for show. Yet isn’t it remarkable that they took the time to come up with a way to digitally augment your experience?

4. Build a lasting brand so you can release multiple products.

Kosmos has one of the cleverest, least appreciated business models I’ve seen in the board game industry. Exit Games have a defined purpose and clear branding. If you like one, you’re likely to buy others. They completed nailed their vibe, brand recognition, and purpose.

That’s remarkable from a business perspective. They’re able to crank out genuinely new and unique experiences to please their audience without long development times. This is great for customer retention, community-building, and, yes, money-making. They come in small boxes, too, so shipping and manufacturing costs are not that high either.

Sure, I will grant you that there are purer, better board game experiences on the market. Yet Exit Games are consistently good and sometimes even great. That’s hard to do, period. It’s a miracle to do that with a great business model.

Final Thoughts

Exit Games can teach board game designers a lot. They are good at teaching us how to be resourceful with components. Their hint system provides a good way of keeping challenges present but not overwhelming. The companion app is a good example of using technology to enhance the board game experience. Finally, it’s just a plain good business model!

Have you played any Exit Games? How’d you like them? Let me know in the comments below!

How to Manage Your Board Game Kickstarter Community

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A couple of months ago, I asked the readers of this blog to send in answers to the question “what confuses you most about board game development?” I got a lot of responses, and one of them was about how to manage a Kickstarter community. That’s what I’ll be talking about in this post.

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This week, I want to respond to a comment by Wade which can be roughly summarized as, “how do you manage a board game Kickstarter community?”

A lot of Wade’s comment is concerned with making sure that your Kickstarter community does not become overly negative. To me, this is particularly interesting since Wade correctly points out that many online communities can become toxic. As I see it, the best way to combat toxicity in online communities is to set a good example and make sure people are having their needs met.

Kickstarter Community Managers Have Three Responsibilities

Kickstarter communities are loosely-defined concepts. They consist often of the Kickstarter comments themselves as well as the publisher’s social media. Naturally, there is also an offline element too, experienced through play-tests and conventions. I’ll focus on the online community for the purposes of this post, though.

No matter where your Kickstarter is being discussed, though, you have three responsibilities as a Kickstarter creator (or collaborator):

  1. Incorporate feedback to develop the best product.
  2. Provide customer support.
  3. Engage the community and build excitement.

Each responsibility is pretty nuanced, so let’s break them down one by one.

Incorporate feedback to develop the best product

When you create a Kickstarter campaign, backers have the general expectation that you will listen to their feedback and incorporate it into this product. When Kickstarter was relatively new, this was extra true. Nowadays, products on Kickstarter are much closer to completion, so there isn’t as much wiggle room.

Even still, astute backers often have good advice. They might tell you that a certain component finish or material feels better. Perhaps they have a little bit of advice for your art direction.

Not all advice is equal, and some of it is quite bad. Yet all of it should be acknowledged, publicly appreciated, and considered. Even advice you can’t use is a gift. Somebody cared enough about your project to stop their day, talk to you, and try to help you achieve your dreams.

At the same time, don’t overpromise! Don’t launch a campaign until you know what you can and cannot afford to change without compromising your game cost or delivery timeline. Upgrading card stock from 300 gsm to 330 gsm linen is usually reasonable. Adding 50 custom pieces of art is not.

Customer Service Rules

Kickstarter backers often use comments, messages, and social media to request customer service. During the campaign, they may ask about shipping prices, customs, components, and game rules. Answer their inquiries quickly, politely, and accurately.

After a campaign funds, but before it delivers, remember that you’re holding onto other people’s money. Give them regular updates. An update every couple of weeks goes a long way toward assuaging the ever-present fear of being ripped off!

After your campaign starts shipping, you will get a bunch of inquiries. Some people won’t receive their package. Others will get unexpected customs bills. A certain percentage will arrive damaged.

When you receive customer service inquiries of that nature, be polite, be quick, and be generous. I have found that because my money is worth time in consulting, it is often most cost-efficient for me to send replacement copies instead of investigating lost packages. If customers pay unexpected bills, I reimburse them.

Yes, you pay more money upfront by being radically generous. Think long-term, though! In the process, you build a great reputation and are more likely to retain customers. Plus, you don’t waste time that could be spent doing something else, including making money. Sure, someone might be out to screw you out of $50 for an extra copy of a game, but in the grand arc of the campaign, that is an insignificant line item.

Community Manager Rules

I’m obsessed with building online communities. Yet in doing so, I like to make sure that I’m building a community based on goodwill, kindness, generosity, civility, and shared interests. This is not always easy to do on the internet.

In a previous post, I talk about eight simple steps to building online communities. Now I’ll show you what they look like in the context of a Kickstarter campaign.

1. Choose the right gathering place for your community. That would be Kickstarter. Next!

2. Establish a theme and ground rules to ensure positive discussion. Your Kickstarter campaign itself will set the theme and Kickstarter as a platform will set the ground rules. To ensure positive discussion, though, make sure you think twice before you launch. Think of the objections people might have to your campaign and try to get ahead of the curve.

3. Invite about 20 of your friends. Ask your friends and family to leave the first handful of comments. This can set a positive tone which people emulate.

4. Establish norms. Kickstarter moves too quickly for you to establish norms the same way you usually would in an online community. However, I recommend sitting by your computer for the next hour or two – or having your collaborators do this on your behalf. Respond quickly and positively to all comments that come in. Again, this helps set a positive tone.

5. Give people a reason to join. This will be your game. Again, make sure your product is awesome before you launch and this will go a long way toward ensuring you have a friendly community.

6. Push to 1,000 members. This is the threshold where I find that people start talking to one another in online communities. This advice doesn’t apply so well to Kickstarter.

7. Listen to feedback to keep your community healthy. See my previous point about incorporating feedback to make the best product.

8. Don’t overspecialize on one platform. In this context, it means be sure to check websites other than just Kickstarter once you launch!

Final Thoughts

The keys to making sure you have a positive community on Kickstarter are simple. Listen to feedback and be genuinely grateful when you receive it. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Be open and communicative. Provide great customer service. Follow the basic rules of community building online.

It may seem like a lot to juggle, but I know you can get the hang of it. Simple gestures of kindness coupled with taking decisive meaningful action go a long way on Kickstarter!

How To Know When to Pivot on Your Board Game Design

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A couple of months ago, I asked the readers of this blog to send in answers to the question “what confuses you most about board game development?” I got a lot of responses, and two of them were about knowing when to pivot during a game design project. That’s what I’ll be talking about in this post.

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This week, I want to respond to a comment by Corry Damey. The question can be roughly summarized as “how do you know when to pivot your board game design?”

Why Pivot in Board Game Design?

Play-testing is notoriously difficult. Game design involves creating a system of rules and mechanics that are interpreted by players according to their expectations. Rules and mechanics alone often interact in complex, unpredictable ways. This alone makes play-testing difficult.

On top of that, people don’t always completely understand the rules of the game or the possibilities that mechanics provide. People bring their own biases and expectations. In short, gamers won’t play your game the way that you want them to.

There are far more ways to screw up a board game than to do one well. Because game designers are creators of complex, unpredictable systems, even the best ones cannot reliably create fantastic games on their first time. For that reason, game designers have to make peace with the fact that their games will have to change a lot before they are ready for public consumption.

Smart Play-Testing Principles

In an old post called Designing Tests and Keeping Records, I talk about how you can stay organized even as your game is revised dozens of times. I encourage you to read that post in its entirety.

Even if you don’t, though, there are two principles which I would like for you to bear in mind when play-testing:

  1. Take notes.
  2. Save your old work.

If you do these two things, you can always reverse a pivot. Don’t destroy old versions of your board game – make new ones instead!

Pivot Early, Pivot Often

Game designers are an intellectual crowd. The great struggle with which intellectuals will eternally battle is a simple one: the real world will never look like the one you imagine. People with perfectionist tendencies may be tempted to stick with a design that’s “almost working.” In truth, though, if you’re early in the process, your game is far more likely to need a big change than a small one. (More on that in a minute.)

Suffice it to say, if your design just feels “off,” then pivot. Pivot like you’re trying to get a big couch up a staircase.

When to Pivot: The 10 Elements Method

In 10 Elements of Good Game Design, I riff on an old Wizards of the Coast article and talk about what makes great games great. I wrote the original version of that post in 2016, and it’s the oldest post on this blog that I actually like, so I encourage you to read that one as well.

The ten elements of good game design, listed in that post, are as follows:

  1. A clear objective
  2. Constraints
  3. Interactivity
  4. A runaway leader killer
  5. Intertia
  6. Surprise
  7. Strategy
  8. Fun
  9. Flavor
  10. Hook

As I see it, if you’re missing any of the first eight, you need to pivot. Flavor and/or hooks can often be added late in the development process since they are primarily thematic. That said, if you don’t think you can add flavor or a hook without ruining theme-mechanic unity, then, yes, you need to pivot.

With that in mind, let’s talk about eight specific scenarios under which you would want to pivot your game.

1. Your game lacks a clear objective.

Without a clear objective, you cannot determine who won or who lost. Objectives are so essential to board games that not having one arguably makes your game not a game at all, by some dictionary definitions.

Having an objective, of course, is not the whole battle. If your scoring system is confusing, for example, then figuring out how to score the most points is too obscured to be playable.

2. Your game lacks constraints or has too many constraints.

If achieving the objective is incredibly simple or incredibly difficult, then odds are, you need to change either the game mechanics or the rules to make it easier or harder to win. Too few constraints rob the players of any sense of achievement. Too many constraints give your game all the fun of a trip to the DMV.

If you cannot fix this issue with a few superficial rule tweaks, you probably need to pivot.

3. It feels like nothing you do in the game matters.

Games need to be interactive. You may achieve this interactivity by having the game impose constraints upon the player, or you may achieve this by having players play against one another. No matter what, though, gamers need to feel like they are interacting with the game. Otherwise, the game feels pointless, like a first-person shooter video game that’s 90% cut scenes.

4. Runaway leaders happen often.

Allowing the leaders to run away with a game is one of the worst qualities that a game can have. Players need to feel like they have a chance to win up until the very end of the game. The only exception may be hardcore skill games.

Again, if you cannot fix this issue with superficial rule tweaks, you probably need to pivot.

5. Your game does not reward skill.

As bad as it is to allow leaders to dominate the game with no hope of the losing players recovering, it’s also bad to feel like your lead is not sustainable. Games need to have an element of inertia. Otherwise, it becomes Candyland.

6. Your game has no surprise.

Even in games with perfect information (where all the pieces can be seen) like chess, your opponent will still catch you off-guard. This doesn’t happen nearly as much at the hyper-competitive level of chess, but for your average day-to-day person, chess is a game that affords players a lot of viable strategies.

Games with no sense of surprise will become dull quickly. They risk becoming “solvable,” which is to say, they have one right way to play. If your game is headed in this direction, you probably need to introduce an entirely new mechanic.

7. Your game is all tactics and no strategy.

You need your game to give players a chance to win by merit of their skill, but not lose for the slightest tactical error. That is to say, your game needs to have an over-arching strategy instead of just a series of tactical decisions. If your game feels like it is missing this key element, you probably need to pivot the design.

8. Your game just doesn’t feel fun.

It’s a soft rule, but an important one. Games are supposed to be fun. If you make a series of small tweaks but your game just still feels like a chore, then you probably need to pivot the design on a much larger level. Even deeply flawed games can often be cleaned up if they feel fun.

Final Thoughts

Pivot early, pivot often. Creating board games is complicated and oftentimes when our designs don’t work, it’s because an underlying assumption of ours is wrong. The fastest way to solve that is often by pivoting the design entirely and trying something new.