Sweat and Serendipity – How I Got Into the Board Game Business

Posted on Posted in Motivation

I didn’t mean to be a board game developer, but everything I did to get here was on purpose. As a child, I was intensely interested in board games and video games. I’ve got multiple dresser drawers and an almost immovably heavy chest full of creative projects from back then. I’m talking about fake Nintendo 64 manuals scribbled in colored pencils on printer paper for games that never existed and board games drawn in Sharpie on posterboard glued to the rigid cardboard of cereal boxes.

Childhood Version of War Co

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When I was 11, I made a card game based on my understanding of Yu-Gi-Oh! from the cartoon on TV. It became popular within my friend group for a few months, maybe a year or two. In time, I completely forgot about this game, until I revised it at age 16 and then age 20. At age 22, I picked it up again, got really serious about it, and recreated it from scratch. That’s how War Co. was born.

I wish I could say War Co. was made entirely out of my altruistic desire to create something beautiful and share it with the world. The truth is that my motivations weren’t that pure. I had graduated with my MBA a few months prior to starting serious development on the game. I had been interested in entrepreneurship and needed an idea to push. I figured “what the hell?” and gave it a shot. I moved like a man possessed and spend hours and hours creating, not necessarily for its own sake, but frankly because I was freaked out by how disappointing my first job out of college was. That’s where the dystopian hyper-corporate theme came from. Even that was an exaggeration because there’s not much wrong with the company I was working for anyway (though I did move into a better job in IT for a hospital).

I created both for its own sake and out of a half-baked fantasy that it would make me independently wealthy.

I’ve established that I loved making games as a child, so you might imagine that I had deep ties in the board game community. You might imagine that I had hundreds, or at least dozens of board games. I didn’t. Sure, as a child, I was surrounded by the big-box, available-in-Walmart games of the nineties and early-00s. Up until very recently, I wasn’t into the Catan/Carcassonne/Pandemic culture that we all know and love. I was a designer before I was a gamer.

Shelfie Board Game Collection
I wasn’t in the “shelfie” crowd.

How does that even work? How do you even design without gaming? Well, poorly…at least at first. I designed early versions of War Co., starting going to board game meet-ups in homes and game stores, and playing games by the dozens. I began to understand why games are the way they are. I began to understand design choices. I began to understand industry workings. I began to understand social dynamics. But I had none of that context until 2016. I learned really rapidly and I’m still learning really rapidly. Don’t let my Kickstarter successthe positive critical reception of War Co., and the fact that I’ve delivered on time give you the wrong impression. I’m committed to learning and growing because I’m still pretty new at this.

Of course, that Battle of the War Co. Kickstarter was hard-won. In February 2016, I fell on my face hard. I launched a very unsuccessful early campaign for War Co. that wasn’t close to funding. It hurt. Bad. I’d never experienced failure on that scale and never wanted to again. That failure stripped me of get-rich-quick fantasies and showed me very clearly that I had a lot of work to do to make War Co. something people would enjoy.

I made a list of everything I did wrong. That list had about 40 items on it. I fixed almost every single one and relaunched six months later, successfully raising $12,510 on my second try.

Don Quixote Going for a Windmill
I’ve titled at a couple of windmills in my early experiences as a game dev.

Some people say the board game industry is all about “boots on the ground” – by which they mean going to conventions and local gaming stores. True to the ass-backwards Don Quixote approach I took to creating War Co., I didn’t really do that. My day job precluded most conventions at the time, but that still doesn’t explain my avoidance of bringing War Co. to gaming stores. In truth, that had much more to do with my unrealistic expectations and plain old naivete. I learned. In the development of my second game, I won’t be so quick to shy away from these valuable in-person events. Thankfully, I had a very strong social media presence on Twitter and Instagram as well as a strong presence in some Twitch communities. That was enough to at least partially make up for my weaknesses.

After War Co. was sent off to the printer in October, I was bored. I started this blog. I wasn’t sure about it and I wasn’t sure about my future as a game developer. Still, I kept putting out two articles per week, even when no one was looking. It was only in late February that this blog actually started to get attention after one of my fulfillment posts.

War Co. finally arrived in the third week of December. It came in enough boxes to fill up the trunks of my car and my brother’s car, with a few still stacked in my backseat. It was when I fulfilled the game myself to residents of the USA that everything finally clicked for me. I decided to stay in the game industry. I decided to make another game. I committed.

Now I’m making a new game about winding journeys over long distances with lots of twists and turns. I think there’s a bit of poetry to that. There’s no one path to becoming a designer. Make something beautiful for its own sake, iterate until you get it right, and learn from others.