When you’re making your first board game, retail distribution is probably not top of mind. Many creators choose to focus on making a brilliant game, well play-tested, with great art, and good Kickstarter potential. And that’s fine! It just means the question of “what do board game retailers care about the most” goes unanswered for a long time.
No longer will it go unanswered! In my game development experience, I’ve never sought out retail distribution. My business model has been one of eCommerce and passive revenue. But even still, I feel that not talking about what board game retailers want is a glaring omission in Start to Finish.
Then Molly Zeff cold emailed me. Her board game, Wing It, is in an estimated 300-330 stores across the world. I don’t normally answer cold emails, but her story is just too good to leave untold. And that’s how we wound up on an enjoyable video call for over 2 hours!
Below, you will find an edited transcript of our video call, transcribed by Scribie. The original call was over 30,000 words in length but was so information-rich that I’ve split it into three posts. What follows has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Who is Molly Zeff?
Before this transcript begins, Molly and I were chatting about anything and everything. For simplicity, the earliest text posted here from the transcript starts about 30 minutes into the call.
Brandon: How did you get into the board game business?
Molly: I was 26. Your age, so it’s kind of funny that you mentioned that. I was literally turning 26 when I somehow got the idea in mind that I needed to either write a book or invent something to help pay for business school.
I knew I was planning to go back to business school in three to five years and I needed a way to pay for it. So I started writing a book on how to fail well.
I like to think that I’m really good at failure. I’m really good at finding ways to move past it. I’m the kind of person who might say like, “Okay, if I’m gonna have to pay $300 per month for the next few months [because of a car accident], I wanna try to figure out how I can make $300 more or spend a little less.”
Anyway, I started writing a book on how to fail well and then I thought… having barely gotten into the book, “I need to fail more. I need to wait ’til I’m in my 50s and I’ve failed a lot more.”
So I stopped writing the book.
First a book, then a board game
Molly: I’d always liked board games, having played them growing up, especially throughout my teenage years and then into my early 20s.
I’d always liked board games, having played them growing up, especially throughout my teenage years and then into my early 20s. So I thought I would invent a board game based on the book Would You Rather.
No idea what reminded me of it, maybe a move, ’cause I was moving to Boston for a new job. I remembered the book or came across my book, “Would You Rather?” And I realized “Would You Rather?”, which asks ridiculous questions like, “Would you rather have a ketchup dispensing navel or a pencil-sharpening nostril?” is all made up by adults just sitting around.
I pictured a bunch of adults just sitting around a room and being weird. And I thought, “I could be weird for a living, and I’m not really using that.”
The questions from the book posing these ridiculous situations that could happen, made me realize, what if there was a game that involved these ridiculous situations and ways to get out of them? And I thought of using objects to get out of them. So I called my friend Jon, whom I apparently hadn’t seen his entire first year in Boston, – and I said, “Jon, do you wanna invent a board game together?” We had no experience in the game industry.
We spent 3.5 years working on it as a hibby, meeting occasionally. We finally got to a point in 2014 when he said, “I think we’ve done enough, we can start playtesting it.” So we both brought a lot of our friends over for a big meetup at my place, and we started testing it.People were laughing. You could say it tested well ’cause we obviously ended up creating it.
Brandon: So eventually people started playing it, you saw them smiling and you saw them having fun and you’re like, “okay, we might actually be onto something here, maybe we can market this.”
A note at this point: Wing It is now in 300-330 stores worldwide.
What do board game retailers care about the most?
Brandon: I have a different question, somewhat related.
Getting into stores is one of the most mysterious parts of the industry to first-time board game creators. And even myself personally, I have never actually made a play for physical distribution. I’ve always kept it e-commerce, simple, and passive.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write about “how you actually get your game in a real physical board game store.” And that’s what you’ve done with Wing It. My first question on that note is: what have retailers told you they want in a game?
Molly: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I’m gonna change a little…
Brandon: Go for it. That’s the beauty of the written word, we can always tweak it.
What do board game retailers want to see in a company?
Molly: Yeah, you said “in a game” and I’m gonna say more like, “in your games or in your company.” [Retailers want to know] when you create a game, even if you’re just selling one game, that you are going to be able to keep the game in print if it’s successful. They often want to be able to get your game from distributors and know that it won’t be a one-and-done print run, ideally. A lot of small indie companies only have one printing of a game, and then they start to have another print run of another game. The problem is that, as one retailer explained to me, if your game sells well at my store and people keep wanting it, but then you print it once and don’t print it again, I just found a popular game that I can’t get back in stock.
Molly: A few retailers have expressed that they don’t wanna bring on a game that’s done really well on Kickstarter because then it feels like anyone who wants it already has it. Sure, you can break it down for them and show them that people didn’t buy your game in their city, or only a few did. So that it’s clearly not an issue. But that would mean getting them into an individual, in-depth discussion in the first place.
So I had a retailer really early on say that I shouldn’t mention that I did a Kickstarter because they didn’t necessarily want games from Kickstarter. So I’m going to say it’s better if you haven’t been really successful on Kickstarter. Isn’t that funny? Like my friends, one of my friends, has made a game that did really well on Kickstarter.
He blew it out of the water. Over $100,000 with what, I believe, was his first game. And that is important to mention only because if his second one doesn’t do as well, I think his chances in retail are better. It’s okay to have had a Kickstarter, but you just actually don’t wanna have done super well. This is just my opinion for designers and indie publishers who ALSO want to get into retail.
Brandon: You want to make it look like your game is already validated by the market, like people really care, but you don’t wanna make it look like you’ve already sold every copy you ever could.
Molly: Right, that’s a good way to frame that, value in the market, proving that there IS a market is a good initial point.
What do board game retailers expect in terms of genre?
Brandon: I’m also wondering, are there certain genres that they tend to prefer, or certain box sizes and art styles that they tend to like?
Molly: I think that most of the bigger indie retailers I’m seeing, specifically indie retailers, want a broad variety, a really broad variety of games in their stores.
Some of the smaller shops are the ones that may feel big but they’re mostly a Magic shop or mostly Magic and RPGs. Those stores have a crowd that comes every week and plays Dungeons and Dragons or people who come in and trade Magic cards every week or play Magic. Those shops probably won’t want as many or need as many party games, just because that’s not their crowd.
Those stores will not be as much of your market [if you make party games or even if you make board games. They often have pretty small board game sections]. I think also at this point, I feel like games that are inappropriate, people used to call them Cards Against Humanity clones, and also things like Telestrations After Dark or Adult Taboo…they’ve become so common that I think adult games are kind of saturated It doesn’t mean you can’t sell your adult party game, but it may be an uphill battle because it’s such a crowded field.
One of the comments, the really positive comments I hear from retailers about Wing It is that it is for all ages, that people can take it wherever they want [as far as being inappropriate], and they do, but it is a family-friendly party game. And some shops, some stores just want to be more focused on family-friendly games with a broad appeal. So there are definitely stores… I’m not going to say this is common among retailers, but there are stores that don’t want to stock games that aren’t family-friendly ’cause of the image they want to keep.
Molly: So, I wouldn’t say that’s one thing that retailers want, but it’s something that a segment of retailers want for that kind of store.
Brandon: Yeah actually, I have a story about that… I know a company called Grandpa Beck’s Games and they’ve got some really big stuff on Amazon. And their whole model is basically just “make a game that the whole family can play” – something light, something that’s got some strategy to it, but isn’t like a mass-market game. That’s their whole plan.
And I feel like that is just the… One of the less-served markets out there. Your hobby gamer stuff, there are so many games for that. Mass market, it’s really hard to break into. And like you said, adult games, party games, those tend to be pretty saturated; but a family game, you don’t see as many people trying to make them.
Molly: Oh, interesting. Yeah, you do see a pretty good-sized party section, but it is often a section of the store, it’s like, here’s the party game shelves…
What do board game retailers expect from the box?
Molly: Retailers also like you to have a pretty good box size. Box size actually really matters in retail. Have you heard this too from people, about box size?
Brandon: I’ve kind of inferred it because… Just by looking at shelves and noticing the relative similarity of things that are on there.
Molly: Bigger boxes add to perceived value and people feel like they’re getting more. And in fact, if we create a non-exclusive, mass-market version of Wing It for this deal that I’m in process of making, it’ll be a bigger box.
Brandon: That is really interesting. I’m gonna insert something in here because, as publishers, you are incentivized to make a bigger box because that’s the kind of thing that catches somebody’s eye on the shelf… ’cause you’re walking by, it has to catch your attention. And it also adds to perceived value. They pick it up, it feels heavy, it feels like there’s something in there. “Wow, this is only $25?” That kind of thing.
Now, if you were an eCommerce company, you would wanna do the exact opposite. You would want to make the lightest, smallest game that you possibly could so you could put it in a tiny package and put the lowest amount of postage on it and get it in the mail cheaply. And so I just think that’s interesting, because traditional retail and eCommerce have different incentives as far as box weight and size.
Molly: That’s a good point. The retailer wants the box to stand out on the shelf. But the people paying to send the games from the warehouse obviously are going to pay more for a bigger box. Also bear in mind, when we sell direct [to retail], we cover their shipping.
We will pay shipping even with a minimum order of two. People are surprised at our minimum order.
Brandon: So that’s interesting. I imagine for small quantities, you’d probably send these by just mail, right? For the big shipments, do you have to coordinate freight for that?
Molly: Usually FedEx or USPS. Normal shipping methods.
Brandon: Okay, so nothing complicated, no wooden pallets, no less than truckload shipments, nothing like that?
Thank goodness, you’re saving yourself a big headache.
What else do board game retailers want?
Molly: Now that I’ve told you some of my answers, I wanna scroll up and just see what Mark Carter, who is a retailer at Guf Games in Australia, says. He is the one who got us into Australian distribution last year. He sent me a whole list of things he looks for – let me find it.
Okay, there we go.
He wants to know what other sales channels you’re using. If you’re selling to Amazon and that’s dropping the price, retailers won’t want to do business.
Brandon: Yeah, that’s a really good point. That would make retailers nervous.
Molly: Yeah, he said, and I quote, “If you are selling directly on Amazon, this is a big turnoff.”
I would say the demo copy is extremely important. If they want to be able to promote it at the store level.
He asks if you’re going to cons and raising awareness, if you’re marketing…
Oh here,’s a good one: are you putting money behind your game? Are you supporting your game? One complaint I’ve heard from a retailer about a publisher who does pretty well, I mean it’s a pretty big publisher, is that they don’t really put the work in behind their games.
Mark also mentioned a way to reorder… so I’ll say that stability of supply is his word for the reality that they want to make sure you’re not going to run out really soon. If your game is really popular but they can never get it again then they’re disappointed.
Brandon: Yeah, of course, that would be a turnoff for a retailer as well. There’s nothing worse than something sells like hotcakes and you have no more of it in stock.
Molly: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And here’s one last one, I just feel like it’s really important, just to be nice, just to be a good pleasant person to work with.
Like some days I’m making calls to 20 stores. You just wanna be sarcastic, or like, not have to be 100% on and upbeat and friendly even at those times when, say, a store has had a demo copy they wanted and it’s been 8 months and they found it unopened while on the phone with you. But as one retailer said, he doesn’t have to work with you if you’re a jerk. There are 10 games coming out every day. So, he doesn’t have to work with you if he doesn’t want to.
Brandon: Pretty much, kindness and patience go a long way. Especially when you’re talking about retailers who can choose to buy whatever they like.
Molly has a lot to teach us about the way board game retailers think. Show proof that people want your game but the market isn’t saturated, put in a big box, and find the right store (for your game’s audience). Back your own ideas, make sure you can reprint the game if needed, and – last but not least – be nice!
Stay tuned for parts two and three of this interview over the coming weeks. We’ll be talking about how you can get your board game into your very first store and how conventions can help you do it.