Last week, I posted A Crash Course in Games, where I acted as a tour guide to the board game industry, covering much of the contextual information you’ll need to make games. Let’s pick up from there and talk about what specifically goes into making a game. What is board game development all about?
I tend to use the word game development as a catch-all term for everything that is associated with making a game – that includes game design, product development, marketing, promotion, Kickstarter/crowdfunding, fulfillment, and selling. I use “game development” to describe “the entire creative process of creating a game from start to finish” the same way people say “the White House” to refer to “the United States government.”
So what goes into game development? Let’s break it down…
Board Game Development: Game Design
When people think of board game development, they’re probably thinking of board game design. The processes associated with creating the actual game itself – the way it plays and feels – fall under the purview of game design. Game design involves creating a game with a core engine that drives the gameplay at a fundamental level. It involves creating mechanics that determine how players interact with the game. It involves creating rules which define objectives and constraints that keep the player focused on certain goals and make it difficult for them to reach them.
Game design also involves a lot of play-testing. Throughout the game design process, you’ll be playing versions of your game, most of which will be horribly broken. You’ll start out playing your game by yourself, simulating other players. Then you’ll start play-testing within a close circle of associates. Once you confirm that your game is reasonably well polished, you’ll be able to play with disinterested strangers. When it’s almost ready to go, you’ll give your game to people who have never played it before and who do not have any help from you. That’s called blind play-testing.
This whole time, you’ll be making tweaks, improving your game here and there. Bear in mind, game design only covers aspects related to the game itself.
Game production is the process of making sure that your freshly designed game becomes a physical product which is perceived well by others. This involves creating or buying art, doing accessibility testing, doing play-testing for factors not directly related to gameplay per se, buying samples, preparing the game for manufacturing, and manufacturing itself. The utopian ideal here is that your game will be beautiful, easy-to-use, physically attractive, and – most important – an actual thing that actually exists in the actual world (and not just your mind). Production is what takes a game design from pen and paper to the print shop. It’s also what makes a game design sell-able.
Board Game Development: Game Marketing & Promotion
Of course, games very seldom sell themselves. You’ll hear every once in a while about a game that flies off the shelf. You probably won’t be that person. (But please call me if you wind up being that person.)
Marketing and promotion is hard work, and you’ll want to start laying the groundwork as soon as you can. It involves creating a strategy, getting web traffic, using social media, using email newsletters, getting game reviews, going to conventions, doing live-streams, issuing press releases, and – most of all – networking. Marketing is about building relationships with people and you need lots of time to do this right. Talking to people is often the difference between selling a game and not selling a game.
A lot of board game developers choose to go through Kickstarter for funding these days. Considering that you have a roughly 50/50 shot of success on the platform, that’s a pretty good idea. Kickstarter has become a de facto testing ground for new board game ideas. If you choose to use Kickstarter for board game development, there’s a lot that comes with that territory as well.
First, you need to spread the word early. Kickstarter is not square one. It is a loud rallying cry that is only useful if you already have an audience who is listening to you. Marketers would refer to it as a “call to action” – something that gets all the wallflowers in your audience to join the party (by throwing money at you online).
Of course, you need to put on your vanity glasses to deal with some preparation in addition to just schmoozing. You have to account for Kickstarter math (fees, taxes, and shipping). There is also the complex matter of making a great campaign page. Completing a Kickstarter requires fulfillment network, as well as creating timetables and coming up with a way to keep your promises. Planning the launch day is critical. You need to set stretch goals if you exceed your goal and come up with a back-up plan if you fall short. Expect to make regular updates. Some people opt to set up a pre-order system after their campaigns.
Let’s assume you create a great game, people like it, you Kickstart successfully, and people know your name. That still won’t sell your game. Trust me, I’ve learned this in the school of hard knocks! Selling involves creating a game that has something about it that makes people want to click Add to Cart or grab it off the game store shelf. That links back to production and marketing. There is also the matter of setting a price point that works for folks. You’ll probably find yourself thinking about advertising, conventions, selling to distributors, and direct selling to customers.
Then there is, of course, the matter of keeping momentum after your game’s release. This isn’t easy! It requires an ongoing effort that links back to your game’s design, production, and marketing.
I’ve just dropped so, so much information here that it would be easy to get intimidated, close the tab, and quit. However, it’s this great complexity that I feel compelled to detangle throughout the course of Start to Finish. Every single subject I’ve mentioned above – game design, production, marketing and promotion, Kickstarter, and selling – is something I feel comfortable talking about at length. We’ll walk through this together and go into all the details. We’ll get really into the weeds.
With an idea of what’s to come, you’ve already got a much better start than I ever had.
Twilight Struggle has been considered one of the best board games of all time. It’s been on the Board Game Geek Top 10 for as long as I can remember and for a while was the #1 game. Twilight Struggle is in equal measures incredible and frustrating, needlessly complicated and elegant in its simplicity. No matter how you feel about it, there is a lot that new board game designers can learn from it.
In Twilight Struggle, you play as either the USA or the USSR during the Cold War era from 1945 to 1989. This is strictly a two-player game. The objective is to score the most points by the end, be the first one to reach 20 points, or to run the DEFCON meter all the way up to DEFCON 1 (thermonuclear war) on your opponent’s turn. It’s played over 10 rounds, split into three eras with different cards: Early War, Mid-War, and Late War.
I won’t get too much into the DEFCON meter, since that’s a whole can of worms that’s outside of the scope of this breakdown. To score, you want to have control of certain regions of the board when scoring cards come around. Broadly speaking, if you have more countries in Africa, you get points when the Africa scoring card comes around. Other scoring regions include South America, Central America, North America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Asia, and Europe. Instead of both players racking up separate tallies, the score rather moves along a two-ended 20 point track (40 points total) with an advantage to the USSR or USA.
1. If you are going to make a game hard to learn, make it worth learning.
From the explanation above, you can tell Twilight Struggle is a complex game. The rule book is long and confusing. Even the basic premises take multiple paragraphs to explain. I once found a strategy guide over 400 pages in length for this game.
For all the talk of accessibility and gateway games, I think some games are meant to be complex. Some games make you work to uncover their secrets. Instead of trying to quickly appeal to you, the games say “no, you play on my terms.” In a weird way, this works wonders and the effort required to learn makes you really appreciate the game.
Maybe it’s your aspiration to make a heavy wargame. Indeed, many of the greatest board games of all time are complex, drawn-out affairs meant for gritty battles of intellectual prowess. If that’s the case, you must internalize one key lesson. Your game better be worth it.
If your game is going to take hours to learn, and many more hours to master, people need to love it. You need die-hard fans to come out of play-testing sessions. Your game must make fanatics so consumed with affection for your game that they proselytize its merits to others. Otherwise, the effort required to learn simply is not worth it.
Put simply, board games have to be interesting for the entirety of their run time. For relatively long games like Twilight Struggle, which tend to be an hour and a half or more in gameplay time, this is especially crucial. The game must evolve and change over time.
Twilight Struggle, because of its structure, has a rhythm to it. It’s split into Early War, Mid-War, and Late War. Different cards become available at different times. The USSR tends to have an early advantage, and they want the game to end early. The US tends to have a late advantage, and they want to drag the game out. The constant, subtle fluctuation in viable strategies keeps the game fresh over its entire runtime.
3. Luck is not evil. Powerlessness is.
A lot of heavy games stay away from dice. In general, the heaviest games stay away from anything remotely resembling chance elements. The idea being that long games need to have less chance in them so that the most strategic player wins.
It makes sense for long games to reward smart, dedicated players. I don’t think anybody could dispute that. But I think the aversion to dice shown by many hardcore hobby gamers is shortsighted.
Twilight Struggle uses dice, and by extension, incorporates a luck element. However, at no point is a player truly powerless. Before every dice roll, a player can calculate the odds of a particular maneuver going one way over the other. They can say to themselves, “I have a 70% chance of getting what I want, so may as well try it.”
What’s really important here is that the dice never become the boss of the player. The player holds all the decision-making power, and they choose to play or not to play certain games of probability. That’s infinitely more nuanced than, say, Chutes & Ladders.
4. Reward creative play.
Heavy games are intellectual exercises. Like a reader reading James Joyce or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, players want to be challenged. They want to fight for every tiny victory. Lovers of heavy board games are motivated by becoming competent at something difficult.
When a game functions as an intellectual exercise, you have to reward creative play. In Twilight Struggle, you are given ample opportunity to sabotage your opponent by forcing them to make tough decisions. You can pursue different scoring strategies by dominating different regions on the map. You can initiate subtle transitions of power by realignment or dramatic ones by staging a coup.
No two games of Twilight Struggle are ever the same. Sometimes the US wins by controlling Southeast Asia. Other times, the USSR takes over South America via Cuba and Africa via Egypt. Players cannot come up with strategies well in advance, they have to constantly respond to events on the board.
From these factors, you have enormous potential for creative play. (Another wonderful example of creative play? Terraforming Mars.)
Twilight Struggle is a gritty, difficult, complex game that rewards players seeking a challenge. For those dedicated enough to unlocking its secrets, you can learn from its perfect pacing, clever use of chance elements, and its abundant opportunities for creative play.
If you’re developing your first board game, I strongly recommend you buy a copy of Twilight Struggle. Even if you don’t have someone to play it with, the Steam store has a version available for $14.99. You can play against the computer or friends online. Worth every penny 🙂
Self-publishing a board game is a long, drawn-out process. Some of this goes back to the process of creating your game, getting it manufactured, and raising funds. Yet if there were a single thing that self-publishers regularly fail at, it’s marketing.
Marketing covers a wide array of activities that convince people to care about and eventually buy your game. Yet that definition doesn’t do it justice. Marketing is best understood as an ongoing process that breathes itself into everything you do as a self-publishing board game developer. As an example, look at this generic project timeline I made a while back. That gray bar at the bottom of the chart that stretches from the beginning to the end is labeled Marketing.
The goal of marketing, especially when you’re small and just getting started, is not to broadcast your message. Until you have a big media presence, you can’t really use “the hype machine” to your advantage. You just don’t have the power to do that. You can, however, target a very particular audience – this is the best use of your limited resources and it’s much more effective. Don’t broadcast. Narrowcast instead.
AIDA stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. When you’re a marketer, the first thing you need to do is get people to know you exist – attention. Then you have to make people care about your game – interest. If they start to want your game, that’s a good sign – desire. Next, they get on your website or Amazon with intention to buy – action. Marketing is a slow dance. You have to very slowly build your reputation.
Marketing is not just about garnering attention and targeting a specific audience. It’s about convincing people to buy your game and to talk about. This is a multi-step process and you need to understand that. You cannot simply shout about your game into the void of Twitter and pray for the best. You need to create a “sales funnel.”
Here is an example of a sales funnel:
With the board game Tasty Humans, we used Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to generate leads. We also generated leads with paid advertising, reviews, and a Rahdo review. This is how we attracted attention.
We were very careful about how we worded each ad and social media post. We usually said something to the effect of “Become a monster. Eat villagers. A puzzle-solving, tile placement board game for 1-4 players.” This pitch piqued Interest.
Kickstarter campaigns act as a clear call to Action because time is so limited. This causes people to back while they still have a chance!
There are a million ways to do this and I can’t tell you the best. In fact, I’m still tweaking, learning, and growing all the time on this because I’ve not yet perfected my sales funnel.
If you look on Board Game Geek, you’ll find that there are so many types of games out there. It’ll make your head spin. You want to know exactly what sort of game you’re making so that you can select the ideal target market and tweak around them. If you can’t describe your game, you’re in deep marketing trouble.
I suggest you look on Board Game Geek to find similar games to yours. There will always be similar games. Know how to make comparisons of your game to other games. Tasty Humans, for example, was like Azul, Sagrada, and Tetris.
Know how to describe mechanics that are in your game and see who it appeals to. Some people dislike “take that” mechanics because they’re too mean-spirited, such as the well-regarded reviewer, Rahdo. It’s no use selling a game with “take that” mechanics to him, then, is it? Likewise, some people really, really love “take that” mechanics and they’re the ones I sell War Co. to.
Know exactly who you’re trying to appeal to. This determines your target audience. Your target audience will differ with each game.
The intersection of your product and your target makes your niche. This is a special place in the market that you occupy better than anyone else (ideally). Your niche in the board game industry is your competitive advantage. You want to own a niche. You want to scratch a particular itch for a particular person better than anyone else.
When you have the perfect product for a specific target, that’s how you get a niche. When you have a working sales funnel that your target audience responds to, that’s how you turn a niche into cash.
Price is very important. I used to claim that it wasn’t, but Kickstarter has changed a lot of the last several years. Namely, backers have become more price-sensitive because of the sheer variety of available board games. This same effect can be found on other online retailers as well as in local gaming stores.
The degree to which customers make decisions based solely on price is called “price sensitivity.” So this naturally brings you to the question of “how exactly do you know what to charge?” There is no easy answer, but here is a method I have found useful:
Go to Kickstarter, Amazon, and local gaming stores.
Look for games that are similar to the one you are making. They need to be similar and art style, amount of components, and general “feel.”
Write down what each one costs – both the base price and shipping.
Pay attention to their sales figures. Copy the successful games’ pricing strategies.
Make sure you can afford to price competitively, or, reduce the amount of materials you need to produce the game.
Marketing is more than simply product, niche, pricing, and setting up a marketing system. It’s also about the subjective experiences that people have while they’re dealing with you. It’s also about what people think about when they hear about your game, when they hear about your website, and when they hear your name. This can all be classed under the bailiwick of “customer experience.”
How do you control customer experience? Some people think it’s about branding – your website, logo, and all that stuff. That’s all important, but let’s talk about four specific processes which affect how people experience your brand:
The sales process. Everything about how you approach people affects your brand. From the language you use, the venues you reach out to people through, and the entire process by which you persuade people to buy your product falls under the sales process.
The buying or pre-order process. The website or offline sales channels you use to facilitate buying or pre-ordering affect how people see you. You want purchasing to be as seamless as possible so you appear professional.
The fulfillment process. You need to fulfill games as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. You want people to think of you as someone who keeps their promises.
The returns process. If people decide they don’t like your game, you need to have a seamless return process. People who return your games but have a good experience returning the game will have a more positive view of your brand. They might choose to buy from you later.
While processes and logistics may seem just like means to an end, it’s important that people feel like they’re being treated well at every step of the process. This is an important part of marketing because these processes will determine your reputation.
Core Concepts of Promotion
Wikipedia says that “[p]romotion covers the methods of communication that a marketer uses to provide information about its product.” In short, promotion is how you spread the word about your business. When you’re a first-time business owner, or especially a first-time game dev, mastery of promotion is absolutely critical to your success. That’s why half this guide is dedicated to promotion and promotion alone.
Promotion is a big tent that covers a lot of different concepts which I cover in more detail below. The first is outreach – how you find first-time customers (also known as “lead generation”). One very specific type of outreach that is critical in the board game industry is the review process. Then you have distribution, which tends to overlap with promotion in some critical ways. Kickstarter itself, which many people falsely see as the means of succeeding in the board game industry in and of itself, is a form of promotion. Finally, there is also advertising – a very effective and nuanced form of promotion that tends to scare people off because it costs money.
Outreach is how you find people to care about your game. It is how you find your target and tell them about your product so that you can carve out your niche. Some people call this “lead generation.”
There are a number of great ways you can run an effective outreach campaign. You can use social media, go to conventions, do an email newsletter, start a chat room, create a Facebook group, and even advertise. While there are some methods that are more effective than others, you want to choose a form of outreach that you like and really stick to it. Just try one or two forms of outreach at first and work your way up if you find that you have enough time to do more.
Social media includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other popular websites where people tend to hang out. This is what people immediately jump to when they think of outreach. However, mastering social media is a challenge all of its own and that requires nuanced thinking which I spell out in Setting Up Social Media as a Board Game Dev: A Primer Course. This is the most approachable way to find and reach out to your target audience, but it’s also a fantastic way to get ignored in the unending shuffle of these constantly noisy networks.
You can also meet a lot of people very quickly by going to board game cons. By meeting people face-to-face and getting contact information such as phone numbers and email addresses, you can get reach out to lots of people in a short amount of time. Cons, however, are intimidating, cost a lot of money, and take a lot of time. That said, I know beginners who have great experiences with them. Don’t write off cons!
Email newsletters are a great way to reach out to people, too. You have to ask for a lot of email addresses and put out a regular, high-quality newsletter with a service like Mailchimp. It’s tricky to do both of these things, but email is by far one of the greatest ways to contact people online. Given a choice between a mailing list of 100 and a Twitter following of 1000, I would take the mailing list every single time – no contest. I have personally had great results with my newsletter (which you should totally sign up for).
I cannot begin to list all the different forms of outreach. This aspect of business rewards creativity and hard work. As long as you can reach out to a highly targeted group of people and keep in touch with them on a systematic basis, you’re well on your way to succeeding with outreach.
Reviews warrant their own section as a very specific form of outreach. They are such a critical credibility-builder for new game devs. Good reviews convince people to buy your game. The occasional bad review still gets your name out there for others to discover you later, plus it makes you look more authentic.
Use Reddit, Board Game Geek, and social media to identify reviewers who fall within your target market. You’ll want to send games to them when it comes time for the review stage of your game’s development. If the reviewer is a professional with an engaged audience and you select based on them falling within your target market, you have a good chance of getting a good review that is seen by people who were already predisposed to like your game’s style from the get-go.
Distribution involves ways that your game is seen outside of just your website or company Amazon account. It is sometimes helpful to have third-party retailers or subscription boxes sell your game on your behalf. When you’re starting out, the exposure alone can be extremely useful to you. Good distribution gets your game seen by more people.
Want to know a secret? This is actually something I’ve bungled on War Co. in the past, so I don’t want to purport to be an expert on this. I encourage you to ask questions about the ideal way to distribute your game and do better than I did my first time.
Kickstarter is the last step in a long marketing dance for a lot of game developers. Your Kickstarter campaign is generally only the Action part of AIDA. Getting people to pay Attention, growing their Interest, and cultivating Desire – those are all up to you. Kickstarter is nothing more than a struck match on a pile of tinder that you assembled yourself.
That said, about 30-40% of backers tend to find you through the search, meaning Kickstarter is a good form of outreach. A lot of people who don’t care at all about social media are trawling Kickstarter in search of the newest new. Still, the degree to which Kickstarter contributes dollars-wise tends to pin itself to how much of an entourage you bring on your own.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that $1 rewards are one of the best things you can have on Kickstarter. Yes, it makes your backer count go up, which is itself a good thing. More importantly, though, once the campaign is done, you can ask everyone to fill out a survey – meaning you can ask for email addresses if you have a newsletter. Kickstarter is not just a way of convincing people to give you money, it can also be a way to capture and hold attention for future games.
Advertising is the last thing I wanted to cover. People tend to get spooked by advertising because they hate the idea of giving up their hard-earned cash for something abstract. Plus, it’s super easy to get burned by advertising and you see a lot of smart people talking bad about advertising because they failed to understand more critical, basic marketing lessons. Still, the potential time savings might just be worth a few hundred bucks in Facebook ads. You’d be a fool to dismiss advertising entirely.
Facebook and Board Game Geek tend to be pretty good places to advertise board games. I’d stick to Facebook when you’re new, though, because Board Game Geek has a really high minimum expense. Facebook doesn’t require you to spend much at all and it also comes with robust analytics that let you make the most of your ad.
When you make an ad, you need to act like a scientist, creating ads and seeing how people react to them. You subtly tweak them until you get better and better responses. But where do you begin? Start with something that your target audience will respond to. Start with the tightest, smallest possible audience.
Once you have a tight target and a good basic idea of what to say to grab attention, you need one last thing. You need to make sure your ad goes to a page that leads to high conversions. The word “conversion” here means “a person who does what you want them to do” in marketing jargon. Do you want them to follow you on Twitter, buy your game, back your campaign, or sign up for your newsletter? Think hard about what you want people to do once you start an ad.
Marketing board games can be very tricky. This article was designed to give you a broad overview of all the different things that go into marketing. My hope is that by spelling it all out, you’ll be more equipped to pitch your game to people who care. Use this guide to ask more questions, run more tests, and get your wheels turning.
If you have any questions or comments, I encourage you to comment below 🙂