Why Board Game Publishers Like Some Games and Don’t Like Others

Posted on Posted in Behind the Scenes

It’s no secret that board game publishers like to reduce risks. Most publishers have a system in place to help them filter marketable game ideas from unmarketable game ideas. Explained this way, it sounds innocuous. It looks like a true meritocracy where the best ideas are the ones taken to the market. Yet the process, so heavy on rejection, has left many game designers heartbroken.

board game publishers talking to 99% of designers

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Board game publishers have to sort good from bad. Most people already get this.

Most designers understand, at least on some level, the need to separate good ideas from bad ones. Companies have limited resources and can only spend their time developing the best of the best. The heartbreak comes from the seemingly arbitrary nature of what is accepted and what is not.

“Why wasn’t my [insert original idea] run with? There are mechanics in there that nobody’s ever seen!”

“Why did they retheme my [insert original theme] game into a generic fantasy world?”

“Why did they cut out half the parts and sell it for $19.99?”

“Did they really have to add miniatures?”

Consumers decide “good” from “bad.”

Last week I wrote People are Weird, Markets are Weirder…Especially with Board Games, in which I do my best to explain – without seeming like a total madman – why markets follow seemingly arbitrary trends. I explain why people don’t like to take risks in a world with so many choices. The central idea of that piece is product-market fit – the idea of a product tailor-made for an existing market of people.

Product-market fit is the law of the land. If your game doesn’t meet people’s specific desires, the overwhelming amount of games coming out will quickly bury it. Your game must be perfectly suited to meet the tastes of a sizable niche of people. This is the First Law of Small Business. Any business that wishes to survive has to play by these rules, at least until they’re a truly massive business (like Comcast, Verizon, Exxon, etc.)

Board game publishers are small.

All board game businesses are at least sort of small. Even the “hulking behemoth” of Asmodee has about 750 employees. You probably work for an employer that has more people than that, let’s be real. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a corporation that small, aside from my own Pangea Games. This is all to say that even if Asmodee were to produce games that didn’t have product-market fit, they wouldn’t be able to survive long.

Publishers are keenly aware of this, so they are very careful how much financial risk they expose themselves to. I bet you that 95% of publishers are three duds away from closing up shop. The profit margins on games can be enormous, but they usually are not.

Building on the above point, many publishers like to create a portfolio of different kinds of games to reduce risks. They may specialize in multiple different themes or games of different weights. They may say “we make this very specific type of game, this very specific type of game, and this very specific type of game…nothing else!” Each publisher’s niche is set by a variety of internal and external factors that are unknowable except to the people involved. Sadly, this leaves many game designers who submit their game ideas in the dark.

Board game publishers respond to external factors that are mostly invisible to designers.

What could some of these hidden internal and external factors be? The first one that comes to my mind is manufacturing costs. The price of the different pieces that go into board games along with the cost of shipping (which is a function of weight and size) drives what is profitable and what is unprofitable. Some games that are dependent upon very large boxes, very heavy components, or hard-to-make pieces cannot be made profitable at a price that consumers are willing to pay. So they get the axe.

Most publishers have friends in the business. They could be manufacturers, retailers, designers, or playtesters. Relationships provide intangible benefits to the publishers who have them, meaning that some games are easier to make as a result. Likewise, if a publisher is dependent upon a retailer such as Target for success, they might find that their business is dictated by the purchasing manager of an entirely different company! The fact is: these things are unknowable to the designer who submits a game. All they can do is submit the game.

Lastly, publishers may be working toward branding or market positioning that is different from what you can see online. Most savvy business owners plan a couple of years in advance. They are often in the middle of executing long-term changes that haven’t begun to bear fruit yet. They could be transitioning into heavy games or small box games, or changes exclusively into a sci-fi games company. It’s impossible to know until the branding changes are made public.

There are so many factors that drive what board game publishers are willing to spend time on. They include market interest, existing contacts, manufacturing costs, future corporate strategy, and more. When you, as a game designer, submit games to publishers with your fingers crossed, don’t feel bad if you wind up rejected. You’re the captain of a boat on a bigger sea 🙂

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