For the last few years, we’ve been living through a glorious age: the Great Board Game Renaissance. In a world aglow with smartphones, tablets, and those annoying billboards that change every five seconds on the side of the road, analog gaming has become a welcome retreat for millions. I wouldn’t have expected history to unfold like that when I was a kid, but here we are. All of this raises two questions. First, what is a tabletop game in the first place? Second, what goes into making tabletop games?
What is a tabletop game (or board game)?
Most folks probably have an intuitive sense of what a board game is. It’s a game that’s played on a flat surface with pieces and pre-marked surface. That’s a broad enough definition to include games from Monopoly to Pandemic to chess.
Yet you must understand that people often use the phrase “board games” to refer to a larger subset of games known more accurately as “tabletop games.” People say “board games” to mean “tabletop games” the way people say “White House” to mean “US government.” That means card games, dice games, miniature games, and tile-based games also fall under the purview of what is frequently called “board games.” This is a very persistent colloquialism within the board game community.
This is really important to know. Not only does it help you demystify some of the speech you hear when you get into gaming, but it also has implications that could affect how you classify your website, categorize your Kickstarter campaign, or target an audience on social media or for advertising.
What are hobby board games?
Board games are a much different animal than most people in this world will ever realize. For a lot of people, board games are the outmoded, dusty games on Walmart shelves. You know the type: Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk, Mousetrap… These are board games, yes, but these are not the type of games I’m going to teach you to create. Contrary to most gamers, I don’t see these games as a bad thing, and if you want to make something like them, I suggest you start looking for ways to reach out to Mattel or Hasbro.
There is a whole underground board game economy that only a fortunate few seem to be privy to. Many people have played Ticket to Ride and Pandemic, yes, but big hobby games like Twilight Struggle, Scythe, and Power Grid are still not household names. These are all fantastic, fantastic games. They’re crafted with love and deep strategies. People have gathered around these games for years. Oh, but this isn’t some hipster thing known to only a few. This underground board game industry exceeds a billion dollars.
What’s the real differences between mainstream board games and hobby board games, then? Well, for one, simple distribution. Mainstream board games are the ones you find in stores like Walmart and hobby board games flourish online and in local gaming stores. Mainstream board games vary in quality from bad to good, whereas hobby board games – at least, the ones that get discovered – are often very good.
What makes hobby board games special?
But what’s the real Chemical X here? It’s the community! The hobby board game community is a real entity of interconnected consumers, whereas mainstream board games sell to whoever passes by. Hobby board gamers hang out at game shops, start Meetup groups in their cities, have friends over to play board games, or even go to conventions like Essen and Gen Con. They have a beautifully complex media landscape rife with videos, podcasts, blogs, and forums.
Hobby board gamers have a passion. If you get into this subset of the larger board game industry, you’re not selling cheap stuff to people filling shelf space. You’re selling community and friendship through well-crafted design. You’re selling art. Not art like artwork, but art like a beautifully made gift of your heart and soul. Oh, and you can make good money doing it, too, if you stick to it for a few years.
The above will tell you what a board game is, who they’re for, and why they’re so beloved. What it doesn’t say is what exactly goes into making a board game. There are a lot of moving parts that go into making board games. In fact, these projects are so big that it takes teams of talented people to make it work. Here are just a few processes that go on behind the scenes.
All games start with ideas. Usually, they start with bad ideas that need to be corrected by the long, slow process of play-testing. Whether a designer starts with an idea that they want to see fully realized or a specs document that says “make this kind of game with these certain mechanics,” there will be an enormous amount of unavoidable trial-and-error.
A designer usually starts with the simplest possible prototype – often either pen and paper or on an online testing tool such as Tabletop Simulator. From there, they play their new game on their own and tweak it until it’s good enough to share with someone else. Then they play-test with friends, family, local gaming groups, online play-testers, etc. until the game feels great.
Once the underlying game feels great, it’s time to turn it into a marketable product. This involves creating art, choosing the right physical components, and coming up with a cost-effective way to manufacture it. 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.
Marketing, Promotion, and Branding
Games don’t typically fly off the shelf. Marketing and promotion are how you spread the word, and both are hard work. Marketing is mostly focused on your general approach – who will you reach out to and which messages will you be sending? Promotion is when you incentivize people to pay attention to your game or brand, such as when you give away prizes or access to a special community. Lastly, branding is how you establish a lasting presence that will allow you to sell many games and maybe even other types of products in the future.
Creators will want to start laying the groundwork as soon possible. Marketing 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. There are entire blogs dedicated to the techniques you can use to successfully Kickstart a board game.
There is a broader lesson here that extends beyond simply Kickstarter, though. No matter how a board game is published, somebody has to pay for it. Either a crowd will pay for it through a platform like Kickstarter, an investor will pay for it in hopes of a return on their investment, or the creator will bankroll their own project. Board games cost thousands of dollars to produce and thousands more to manufacture. Sometimes it even costs tens of thousands of dollars.
Once a board game creator has a clear vision of what the physical product will look like and the funds to make it happen, it’s time to bring the game to life. There are dozens of reputable board game printers, the vast majority of which I know of are located overseas in China. After narrowing it down to a few, a creator needs to create very, very, very detailed specification documents to send to printers for quotes. The level of detail that goes into these documents cannot be understated – box sizes are specified down to the millimeter! After analyzing quotes from printers, a creator will then make a decision on which printer to use.
After board games are printed, almost always in runs of 1,000 or more, creators must then prepare for fulfillment. Inventory must first be shipped to one or more warehouses. The warehouses then ship packages to the customer and provide customer service for packages that go missing in the mail.
Once a game is designed, produced, funded, and manufactured, it is finally time to start selling it. This can be done online or offline through a variety of different means, but the main takeaway is that somebody has to do it. Somebody has to stock board games on the shelves or set up an online shopping site.
Tabletop games are massive projects with a lot of moving parts. They have to be carefully tested, deliberately crafted into sellable products, marketed and sold, bankrolled, manufactured, and shipped. Keeping straight the amount of tasks involved in creating a board game is a challenge even for the most organized individuals. Next time you see a board game on the shelf, think about what went into it and appreciate the great complexity of what seems so incredibly simple 🙂