Board Games Aren’t Everything: 8 Reasons to Diversify Your Business

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Board games aren’t everything. The world is very large and the opportunities to serve others are diverse and abundant.

I’ve been thinking big-picture lately. Many of you have likely noticed this with my recent posts. In Don’t Just Build a Board Game, Build a Business, I make the argument that you should consider creating something larger than a single game. The recent post, 6 Right and Wrong Reasons to Make a Board Game, is all about why your motivations are important to your long-term well-being beyond simple financial success. Could Kickstarter Become a Board Game Store by 2020 and Board Gaming in 2029 are my attempts to look into a crystal ball and imagine what the board game industry might be like in the near future.

All of this is to say: question your underlying assumptions! I cannot stress this enough. It’s a fool’s errand to do the wrong thing the right way.

 

board games aren't everything

 

Why write about this?

First, a little bit of background. I’m a big believer in Jamey Stegmaier’s Lesson #81: Don’t Quit Your Day Job. During the day, I work as a System Analyst on very complicated software in a big hospital. Additionally, I have begun providing marketing consulting services both inside and outside of the board game industry. I am also working on two tabletop games – Tasty Humans and Rift Shifters: Yesterday’s War. In short, I practice what I preach here.

Before we get to the 8 reasons, let me make a few more points so no one has any false ideas about how this is possible.

  1. This is only possible through the power of teamwork. Any of these items alone, except for the day job, are not doable by one person’s effort.
  2. As for the consulting, that did not come out of the blue. After I started regularly receiving cold contacts via this blog, I set up a separate company entirely to handle them. Heck, I’m still working on publishing the site!
  3. It took me years to get to this point. The years 2015 to 2018 were like standing in front of an automatic butt-kicking machine made to show off the durability of steel-toed boots.

 

Board Games Aren’t Everything: 8 Reasons to Diversify Your Business

 

Reason 1: The board game boom may or may not last.

Board game sales have been growing year over year over year for several years. On the surface, this seems like unmitigated great news. After all, jumping into a growing industry is generally a winning move.

The only problem is we don’t know how long this boom will last. People might get tired of board games. Not to mention, they’re a non-essential good. Kickstarter has only been active since 2009, which I will note, is after the financial crises of 2007 and 2008. We’ve been in a bull market for a long time as of the writing of this article. We don’t know what will happen to the modern board game industry when the market isn’t doing so well.

Now, hey, don’t be sad! I personally believe board games have a bright future and that they are popular for a lot of reasons. Failure to acknowledge the inherent uncertainty of a single market is foolish, though.

 

Reason 2: Board game fundraising models may change.

All that time on social media, I’m seeing people lament that larger companies are pushing smaller ones off of Kickstarter. I’ve even written about the possibility of Kickstarter turning into a store in the near future. Either way, the board game fundraising model is inexorably changing. In the near future, the fundraising model could be such that it forces you to either go through a publisher or become the publisher. Not everybody can or should do that!

 

Reason 3: Board games have a long time-to-market.

Board games are long haul projects. No matter how fast you try to move, board games take several months to create, and often they take years. It’s hard to stay in a business where it takes that long to start making money and there is no guarantee that the game will succeed. Many, many great board games will flop because they are not right for the market at that moment. The long development cycle makes it hard to cope with this.

However, if you have multiple sources of income, this is a lot more tolerable. As badly as I want Tasty Humans and Yesterday’s War to succeed, Pangea Games / Pangea Marketing Agency has more than one way to survive. I don’t have to live and die by the sword, and neither do my direct reports, contractors, and freelancers.

 

Reason 4: Board games have tight margins.

If you’ve ever requested quotes from manufacturers, freight forwarders, and fulfillment companies and tallied everything up, you probably cried. You probably cried great money tears. That’s because the margins in the board game industry are tight. It’s really hard to sell a game at $50 or more unless the pieces are top-of-the-line. Similarly, you have to optimize everything at a materials level to make $19.99 or $24.99 games in small print runs.

Having more than one way to make money with a business allows you to create more games until you finally create an evergreen that can be produced in a large print run for a low cost.

 

Reason 5: Overspecializing in one market leaves you vulnerable to shocks.

This is an extension of what I said in Reason 1. We don’t know how long the board game boom will last. Even if the board game boom does last, there are lots of ways indie creators could be pushed out of the market by uncontrollable factors. New safety regulations regarding toxic materials in ink could force small companies to spend a lot of extra money on safety testing. President Trump could push for tariffs against importing from China, driving up the cost of manufacturing board games by 20% or more. Printer ink could double in price and make board games nearly unprintable. The USPS could raise their arbitrarily low shipping rates and squeeze out the indies so they can finally turn a profit.

 

Reason 6: If it’s money you’re after, it helps to have multiple income streams.

Money, money, money, money. So many of these points revolve around money. Most people making board games do so because they love making board games, and I think that’s an absolutely fantastic reason. I promote that all day, every day, and I love working with people for whom board gaming is their great passion.

Ah, but you still have to pay the bills. If you want to get that game published, you have to bankroll it, even before you’re ready to raise funds on Kickstarter. If you plan to do that, you either need to be independently wealthy, making a good amount on your day job, or bringing in money on different business pursuits. The first never described me, the second did for a few years, and the third is where I am now with Pangea.

 

Reason 7: You will build more contacts.

The board game industry is big, but it’s also very small. If you work in different, but related industries – whether through a day job or other business functions – you’ll meet more people. Meeting people whose day-to-day lives are different than your own is one of the greatest ways to learn.

 

Reason 8: You might find something you like more.

Your motivations are so important. The board game industry runs on passion. After a while, you will find that you either have the passion or you don’t. Diversifying your business will allow you to move toward what you want to do in the long run, whether it’s related to board games or not.

The ability to move toward what you want is crucial. Life is short. It’s too short to spend doing stuff you don’t want to do, at least forever, anyway. “Rise and grind” is fine for a few years, but it makes for an awfully shallow life if you do it for too long. Refuse to let yourself be pigeonholed!

 

A Caveat: There is a fine line between focus and myopia.

There is one great argument against everything I’ve said. You can argue that it leads to a lack of focus to spread yourself thin across different industries. This, my friend, is true – at least to some extent. The ability to deeply focus is important to doing great work. In fact, this is why I am such an advocate for building a team and having people specialize in what they’re good at and what they enjoy.

Yet the flipside of focus is myopia. You can miss things that are right in front of your face if you spend your days assuming everything must fit into a simple framework. Work hard and with great focus, yes, but also take time to look at the bigger picture.

 

Final Thoughts

Board games aren’t everything. To focus too much on one way to make money is to miss many paychecks. To focus too much on one way to express yourself is to leave deep thoughts unspoken. Staying within a small community for too long can stop many great relationships from flourishing.

With that, I leave you with one question. What’s a creative or entrepreneurial endeavor you’ve wanted to start outside of board gaming? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

4 Ways to Vet Your Board Game Before Launching a Kickstarter

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Everybody wants to be a board game designer these days. We have the beautiful fortune of working in a hot industry that’s always bringing in fresh talent. With fresh talent comes fresh ideas. With fresh ideas comes many more rotten ideas created in the process.

Nobody wants to launch a Kickstarter campaign only to have it fail. Many board game designers are competent in every aspect of board game design, except for testing the premises of their ideas. And hey, no judgment – I’ve made the same mistake and as a marketing guy, I should darn well know better! So with all this in mind, let’s talk about vetting your board game ideas before going through all the rigamarole of launching a Kickstarter campaign.

 

Putting a board game no one wants on Kickstarter is like selling a ketchup popsicle.

 

Remember the phrase “product-market fit.” If you want to sell something, remember that value is subjective and based upon what your audience desires. If they don’t want what you’re selling, no amount of ads, discounts, pretty pages, or anything else will get your game sold. You have to make sure there is real market demand first. Here are four methods you can use as a proxy for product-market fit within the board game industry.

 

1. Send a prototype to a play-testing service before launching a Kickstarter.

I think play-testing services, in general, are a good way to spend money. Play-testing is how we perform quality assurance in the board game industry. The standards are exacting and the process is circuitous. That’s why I’ve plugged the GameSmiths on the blog in the past. I think that their services provide tremendous economic value when you think in terms of time saved.

That said, we’re not talking about quality assurance here. We’re talking about product-market fit. As it turns out, even professional play-testers are gamers first and foremost. Often, if they give a game low reviews even though it’s technically well-designed, it’s because they have the sense that something is…off. That undefined “something” is often a canary in the coal mine of bigger problems with marketability.

In board games, poor product-market fit doesn’t often look like slam reviews from reviewers, gamers, or play-testing services. Poor product-market fit looks like faint praise and 6/10 reviews. This industry is powered by people who are in love with board games, and anything that doesn’t quite seem right will often receive no more than a mediocre review. Paid play-testers often provide reviewer-esque feedback before you go to the hassle of completing a game, printing a short run, and sending a game out to reviewers.

 

2. Go to a Protospiel convention before launching a Kickstarter.

Does paying for a play-testing service seem a bit too clinical? Does the feedback seem a bit stilted and inorganic? Fortunately, there is a way to get real feedback from board games in a natural environment. You can go to local conventions called Protospiels and share your half-finished board games and no one will balk. It’s the culture!

Product-market fit can often be felt long before a game is polished. People feel attracted to a game, even in its rough state, when product-market fit is present. If you take your game to a Protospiel and it’s got typos and a couple of slipshod rules but people still come back for more, then you’ve got product-market fit.

Now here’s the big risk with this approach: it’s easy to see what you want to see. Board game design is super personal. It’s a creative outlet. Designers and even publishers often don’t see the warning signs because, frankly, it hurts to look. It hurts to see that your idea isn’t catching on with your target audience.

With that in mind, let’s talk about more objective ways of measuring interest.

 

3. Release a print-and-play version of your game before launching a Kickstarter.

A lot of the time, you can often launch a print-and-play (PNP) version of a board game long before you consider a Kickstarter campaign. The internet makes this very easy to do. Granted, the kind of gamers who will willingly try and PNP board game are a very small subset of the larger market, but their insight can nonetheless be valuable.

The real key here is this: does anybody want to try your PNP game? If you promote the PNP on a variety of channels, particularly the appropriate ones, and the number of takers is big, fat goose egg, then something in your pitch isn’t connecting. Similarly, if you have a download page and nobody ever sends you feedback, that’s also spooky. At the PNP stage, even negative feedback is a sign that people are truly engaging with your board game. Uninteresting print-and-plays are usually neither printed nor played.

 

4. Run ads on Facebook and see how many people sign up for your mailing list before launching a Kickstarter.

Last but not least, there are some elements of your board game that may not best suited for feedback from gamers. Oftentimes, gamers respond to art long before they respond to gameplay. If you ask for detailed feedback, you’ll receive feedback on gameplay but not first impressions. So how do you test first impressions? Use a system entirely based upon them – Facebook ads.

Like I mentioned above, this is best suited for testing art. Create a simple landing page with Mailchimp that will gather emails. Then create a simple ad containing some art for your game and a two-sentence pitch. Set the audience to board gamers within the US, UK, Australia, and Canada. Set your budget for $10 total or so. You can always increase this later.

If you find that people are willingly handing over their email addresses for $1 each, that’s a good sign. If each email costs more than $2-3, something is definitely off. It could be your pitch or it could be your art. Either one can pose a big problem for product-market fit.

 


 

Vetting your core ideas before launching a Kickstarter campaign is vital. It’s difficult emotionally, but thankfully, there are a lot of ways you can do it. You can take any of the above methods or substitute your own. The most important thing here as that you test your ideas and make sure you have good product-market fit. If you nail that, everything else will be a good deal simpler.

How do you vet your ideas before launching a Kickstarter? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you 🙂

5 Reasons Why Board Games are So Popular in 2019

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Board games have been absurdly popular for the last several years. In 1999, the possibility of the board game industry experiencing a massive renaissance like the one we’ve all been witness to was laughable. The business was shaky to its core. There were relatively few fans, the supply chain was rocky, and raising funds was hard. Then, serendipitously, one by one, the obstacles toward the modern board gaming landscape fell away. We now have ScytheGaia ProjectTerraforming MarsGloomhaven, Root… The list goes on.

So what happened?

 

 

Why the Question “Why Board Games are So Popular” Matters to You, the Developer

First, let’s talk about why the question matters in the first place. Many of you know I’ve gotten really into the discipline of marketing. Marketing isn’t just about selling people random stuff they don’t need, unless you are, quite frankly, a hack. It’s about figuring out what people like, why they like it, and how to give it to them.

When something as seemingly random as board games becomes very popular, it makes a marketer’s Spidey sense tingle. Understanding the emotional origin behind people’s connection with board games is very important if you’re a publisher. You’re not just trying to make the greatest worker placement fantasy game…you’re trying to make a game that satisfies the emotional needs of your customers.

History provides context. That context can be used to explain why board games have become popular. That can, in turn, help us make great games or even predict whether or not board games as we know it will last.

 

1. The Internet and Social Media Made the Communities Possible

Board gaming is an obscure enough niche that it can’t justify the existence of a TV network, large magazine, or other traditional media outlet. Prior to the modern internet, especially social media, there wasn’t a particularly good way for people to connect over their love of board games. Social media allowed people from all over the world to connect around common interests. This, in turn, allowed people to express demand in ways that enterprising creators could take note of and act upon.

 

2. The Internet and Social Media Made Us Want to Log Off

Simultaneously, the very same tools that made board gaming as we know it possible – the internet and social media – came with a whole bevy of problems. Humans, biologically, are not programmed to talk to faces on screens. We need other people, physically, in our lives or else we suffer. We become lonely and isolated – one of the biggest problems of the modern age.

On top of that, the modern internet qualifies – in my opinion – as a social supernormal stimulus. A supernormal stimulus being anything that’s really attractive and not natural, such as junk food and it’s delicious calvacade of fats and sugars that our ancestors would never have been exposed to. Social media is a very normal part of socializing now, but some people are reacting – at least in my anecdotal evidence – with a sort of revulsion to that. They turn to more “wholesome” hobbies like board games. People want a form of escapism from the supernormal stimuli of modern life.

Now all that said – this is not why people prefer one particular game over another. This is not why people go out and buy Terraforming Mars or Azul. It is my opinion that this modern feeling of overwhelm creates a desire for a tangible social experience – which board gaming provides better than most forms of entertainment available today.

 

3. The Supply Chain Changed

People began to connect over their love of board games. At the same time, people felt a desire to play board games to get away from modern hyperstimulation. Completely unrelated to either of these occurences, something else was going on simultaneously.

Internet access and lax trade policies made it possible to manufacture games across the world. Board games are difficult to manufacture because there are a lot of parts. It used to be tough to find a printer for a reasonable price unless you were a really big company like Hasbro. Now, it’s very easy and takes a couple of days.

Revolutions in the print industry as well as the logistics industry made the supply chain for board games go from being very complex to sorta complex. There are still barriers to entry, mind you, but they are a lot lower. This allowed smaller print runs, which in turn allowed games to be made around niches. At the same time, you could identify profitable, in-demand niches by checking in with the growing board game community, which was by now both an online and offline entity.

 

4. Kickstarter Changed the Profit Model

You might find it remarkable, but we managed to make it this far into the article without mentioning Kickstarter. Created in 2009, I don’t remember seeing much of the site until 2012 or 2013, well after the widespread adoption of social media. With a simpler supply chain providing lower barriers to entry for pleasing a newly connected community, now all that was missing was a way to make the money to print the games.

Oh, hello, Kickstarter.

You probably know how this story ends. Board games have taken over Kickstarter, accounting for as much as 30% of the revenues they bring in. When Kickstarter entered the scene, the last barrier to entry – money for printing – fell away. This, in turn, opened the floodgates for a thriving culture of board game creators to create a steady stream of board games for board game fans. Regardless of Kickstarter’s future, their contribution to the board game industry is and always will be monumental.

 

5. A Culture of Creation Developed

Last but not least, there is one remaining element that helped make board games as popular as they are. That is board game designers themselves. A massive culture started to develop around board game design. If you don’t believe me, just type “board game design” into either the Twitter or Facebook search bar. You’ll see men and women from all over the globe who are passionate about making board games. There are entire cons dedicated to play-testing board games (Protospiels).

The culture of creation is yet another tributary into the mighty river of the modern board game industry. It may be the most important, too. The internet, social media, and the global supply chain are here to stay. Kickstarter may or may not keep their business model as it is today, but that’s not terribly important as long as the demand for board games continues to grow. The passion of creators is what keeps a steady supply of board games coming out today.

 


 

By thinking about why board games are so popular, we can better understand gamers and their ultimate desires. From there, we can continue to make games that are emotionally satisfying.

Why do you think board games are so popular today? Let me know in the comments below!

 

(Jamey Stegmaier has written an article recently called Top 10 Reasons for the Rise in Popularity of Tabletop Games. It’s another great take on this subject, and I encourage you to read it.)