In chapter 1 of this Design Diary, I described the initial idea for my work-in-progress game design, Mansion Builder. It’s an auction game in which players are property developers, bidding in auctions to acquire ridiculous improvements for their mansions in order to satisfy the desire of oddball buyers.
One of the first issues I had to deal with: How do I want to actually conduct the auction? It’s a simultaneous auction where everybody decides how much they want to bid and then everyone reveals their bids at the same time. How did I want this to work at the table?
Well, as a designer I had a few different approaches for running simultaneous bid auctions.
My first thought (since it was at hand) was to go with cards. Specifically, I used regular playing cards and gave each player a set of Ace (representing 1) through 10 of a suit. When it was time to bid, everyone would choose one of their cards, put it face down in front of them, and then everyone would reveal simultaneously.
This actually did work, but it had some drawbacks.
First, it limited the players to bidding up to 10. In theory, if a player has 25 money and they want to bid all of it, they should be allowed to.
Second, it created an awful lot of components. A full set of bidding cards for each player is unwieldy.
Third, if the game were played a lot, these cards would wear unevenly. The lower numbers (5 or less) would be used the most, and could end up being marked.
My next idea was to give each player a card with a dry-erase coating on it, along with a dry-erase marker (think Telestrations, but smaller). Everyone secretly writes their bids, then reveals simultaneously.
This worked okay in practice, but I still wasn’t completely happy with it.
First, depending on how sneaky players were being, it could be possible to figure out what others were writing based on the movement of their pen.
Second, it was a little bit messy with all of the dust from erasing the bids.
My current approach is making me happy so far. Money in the game is represented by small tokens of some sort. I’m currently using small plastic “scatter” that looks like little crystals. The clear crystals are worth 1 money each, and the amber crystals are worth 5.
Players put whatever quantity of money they want to bid in a closed fist, then all players simultaneously open their hands to reveal their bids.
The biggest advantage of this approach is that it’s a lot of fun. There’s a nice moment of tension when all of the players have a closed fist in the middle of the table right before the bids are revealed.
Another advantage is that it makes bookkeeping much easier. I always had tokens for money, and with the other methods the players had to reveal their bids, then reach into their supplies to fish out the right amount of money and put it back in the bank. Now they can just drop the crystals that are in their hands right into the bank pile.
End of chapter 2
So, that’s one issue solved: Closed fist auctions are going to work for Mansion Builder. Next time, I’ll talk about the challenges of designing useful playtest cards. Icons ahoy!
When you’re just starting out in game design, you probably don’t have a lot of money to spare on game-related stuff. You’re going to be taking money out of your own pocket to cover the cost of paper and printer ink and card sleeves and meeples and such, just to get your game prototypes to the stage where you can test them out.
I sympathize. Really, I do.
Later on, perhaps you’ll get to the point that you have a great, playtested game that you’re ready to put on Kickstarter so that you can afford a big print run (or a small print run, as in the case of Otters). If you’re going to run a successful Kickstarter campaign, it’s going to have to look good. You’ll need some illustrations to show what your final game is going to look like. You’ll also need some great graphic design.
You want backers to see you as a professional. And that’s going to cost money.
Now, you might be thinking, “Isn’t the whole point of a Kickstarter campaign to raise money that I obviously don’t have? How can I pay for art and graphic design before running a Kickstarter campaign?”
And here’s where you have to face a hard truth:
You’ll need to invest some of your own personal money into your game before you’re ready to take it to Kickstarter.
Lesson 1: Don’t ask professionals for free art
You might be tempted to ask talented people to work for free. Please don’t.
Now, if it’s a close friend or family member who just wants to help you, that’s fine. But please don’t work your network to find someone you’re vaguely connected to who has artistic ability and then ask them to donate their time and energy for nothing.
Lesson 2: Don’t ask professionals to work now for post-Kickstarter payment
This is the one that inspired this post. A game designer was asking for referrals to professional artists who would work now and get paid if the designer’s Kickstarter campaign is successful.
That’s a big if. What happens if the campaign does not succeed? The artist gets nothing.
Now, if you have an artist who wants an equity stake in your project, that’s open to negotiation. Maybe they are interested in getting, say, 10% of the Kickstarter gross or an actual share in your game publication business or something. That way they share on the potential upside, too.
But if you have an artist who would charge, say, $500 for the work you want done, it’s not cool to ask them to do the work now and pay them if (and only if) your Kickstarter succeeds. You’re the one taking the business risk here – don’t ask the artist to take that risk for no upside.
Lesson 3: Don’t steal art
I hope that this one doesn’t need to be reiterated, but we live in the era of the internet, and it’s easy to use creative works that you don’t have the rights to. Do a Google image search, and you’ll find tons of awesome artwork that’s ready for downloading and dropping into your game.
If you’re putting together a first draft prototype that will only ever be seen by your close personal friends and family, then this is okay. But if you plan to show your prototype online, let alone print it for money, you can only use art that you own the rights to.
This means that you either pay to commission or license art from a professional, or you find art that you’re legitimately allowed to use without paying for it (such as public domain or Creative Commons commercial-use art). Don’t just use an awesome image because it’s there if it’s not yours to use.
Why should I care?
One of the criticisms I faced when I called out a designer who was trying to get artists to work for potential post-Kickstarter payment was that the question of work terms was between the project creator and the artist. If the creator could find artists willing to work for the hope of payment, that’s between the creator and the artist, right? Why was I butting in?
Well, I think that all of us in the (relatively small) game design community have a duty to make it a better place. I want a community where artists feel welcomed and respected, not one where they feel like they’re going to get screwed over at any moment. I want to foster a feeling of respect all around, and standing quietly while a fellow designer engages in business practices that I find unethical doesn’t build the community that I want to see.
We’re all in this together – designers, artists, gamers and everyone else. Let’s make the gaming community a better place.
P.S. You may have noticed that the illustrations accompanying this post are icons. These are from the excellent Noun Project, which has tons and tons of icons that are available either in the public domain or in a Creative Commons commercial-use license (hence the attributions in the captions). And if you want to use the CC-licensed icons without attribution, you can buy the rights for $1.99 per icon (or $1 per icon if you buy 10 at a time or 50 at a time or whatever). Great site – go check it out!
Humble, in this case, means that I wasn’t looking for a ton of money (just $1,000). I didn’t plan for a ton of stretch goals. I didn’t want to promise something overly shiny. Just a fun little game for a reasonable price.
Most importantly, I didn’t want the Kickstarter campaign to take over my life!
Humble step 1: Low funding goal
A humble campaign only works if you don’t need a lot of money in order to deliver your project. In the case of Otters, I was using a print-on-demand company (DriveThruCards), which meant that I could theoretically just print a few decks and call it a day.
Some cases where this approach can work:
Print on demand games (DriveThruCards, The Game Crafter, etc.)
Digital-only projects (RPGs, art projects, comic projects, music downloads, etc.)
Capped rewards (handmade items where you’re only making, say, 50 of them)
Some cases where this approach probably doesn’t work:
Manufacturing projects (gadgets)
Games with lots of components (minis, dice, etc.)
Projects with big fixed costs (art commissions, recording studio time, crafting of molds for plastics)
Basically, if your project gets dramatically cheaper per backer to fulfill the more backers you have, it’s probably not a great fit for a humble campaign.
Humble step 2: Pay for graphic design
Wait, didn’t I say this campaign was humble? Doesn’t that mean I can’t afford to pay anyone?
Well, I can’t afford to pay a lot of people, but I can spend money where it counts: Graphic design.
Your humble campaign still needs to look good. Backers need to have confidence that you’re a professional and that you know what you’re doing.
If you’re already a skilled graphic designer, great! If not, hire one. You at least need a logo, and you can use that to craft a consistent look and feel to your campaign.
In my case, I hired Dane Ault. I highly recommend him – he does freelance work! Give the man a call.
Humble step 3: Creative Commons art
Like I said, I can’t afford to hire a lot of people. This includes illustrators. Good art costs money, especially if you need a lot of art (such as in a game with lots of cards, each of which needs its own illustration).
This is the type of thing that Creative Commons was invented for. You can use Google Image Search – Advanced Search to find images that are available for reuse, even for commercial purposes. You’ll still need to make sure you give credit to the creators of those images in most cases (sometimes you’ll find true public domain images), but that’s a fantastic deal.
In my case, I was actually planning to pay illustrators to create custom illustrations if my campaign raised enough money, but by that point my backers were in love with the Creative Commons photographs of otters – so I just added a bunch more of them.
I’ll note that it’s not just illustration and photography that can be released under Creative Commons: You can find music, too, and even some other media.
Humble step 4: Getting the word out
This was the main step where I wanted to be humble. I’ve read so many stories of how Kickstarter campaigns will dominate the lives of their creators. You won’t sleep, you won’t eat right, your friends and family won’t see you, etc.
That’s not for me.
Now, this meant that I wouldn’t be able to maximize my campaign, and I had to be okay with that. Fortunately, I was indeed okay with that. I wanted to get Otters out there in the hands of families, and I wanted to make a little profit doing so, but I wasn’t planning to launch a gaming empire from this campaign.
My outreach mainly consisted of reviewers. I reached out to about a dozen game reviewers (you can find lots of them here, thanks to James Mathe) about five weeks before I launched the campaign to ask them if they would like a review copy of Otters. They all said yes. I sent them games, along with a letter containing details of the Kickstarter campaign, and they did their reviews.
I had several reviews that were already done before the campaign launched, which is hugely important for credibility (backers want to see third party opinions of your game). I also had several more that came out during the campaign.
There were blog reviews, video reviews, and podcast reviews. I only approached reviewers who were interested in covering Kickstarter games and who didn’t charge for their reviews (beyond the cost of sending them a game, of course). I tried to target folks who reviewed children’s games, since that’s what I was making.
Beyond reviewers, I kept my blog going and I talked about the game on my Twitter and Facebook pages (but not too much).
A special note on reddit: I only put up one post about Otters on reddit, and that was on the next-to-last day of the campaign. The /r/Boardgames subreddit can be very particular about spam. Reddit is a powerful force for traffic, but you have to be involved in the community and not just use it as an advertising platform. I’m pleased to say that my post about Otters got over 100 net upvotes, which is huge for me.
Humble step 5: Keeping the campaign in check
Now, I don’t mean that I actively tried to keep people from backing me in an effort to stay well away from $100K. I mean that I didn’t want the campaign to get swept up in too many stretch goals and add-ons.
With stretch goals, I had two. The first one, as I mentioned above, would let me pay for illustrations on the cards. As it turns out, the backers didn’t even want that.
The second stretch goal would let me have a rule sheet with the game instead of three cards with the rules on them. Amazingly enough, the backers seem to prefer the rule cards (though some do want the rule sheet).
I did have a stretch goal in mind in case the campaign hit the $15,000 level that would let me use a more traditional game manufacturer for a bigger print run with a custom printed box, but we never got close to that, and I’m okay with that.
As for add-ons, I only have one: A custom cloth bag to carry the game in.
A minor side note here: All of the various dollar amounts are set (serendipitously) such that I can tell what add-ons each backers has picked based on the dollar amount. In some cases, a backer might round up a $24 pledge to $25, but I usually know that:
$12 is a one-deck US backer
$20 is a one-deck international backer
$21 is a two-deck US backer
$24 is a one-deck and one-bag US backer
$29 is a two-deck international backer
$30 is a three-deck US backer
$32 is a one-deck and one-bag international backer
And so on
I wouldn’t suggest killing yourself to set up your pledge levels to have this feature, but it sure helps me keep track of things.
If you want to run a simple little Kickstarter campaign rather than a blockbuster, keep it humble. This might be because you have a simple project that you just want to put out in the world. Or it might be because you want to establish your reputation on Kickstarter with something you know you can fulfill before you go for the big project down the line.
I haven’t written a full designer diary on a game since my first game, Chaos & Alchemy. I think it’s time I started up again.
I’m in the early playtesting stages right now for a game that I’m tentatively calling Mansion Builder. It’s going well enough that I think it’s worth writing about. So here we go!
Theme Idea: Building… something
The original idea for Mansion Builder came from reflecting on the idea that players like building something during the course of a game. You build a farm and a resource engine in Agricola. You build a rail network in Ticket to Ride. You build a plot quest engine in Lords of Waterdeep. You build a laboratory in Chaos & Alchemy.
Building stuff is fun and rewarding. So why not build a literal building? I decided I wanted to make a game about building houses, with a comedic touch. I wanted players to build ridiculous mansions with over-the-top features like solid gold bathtubs and heliports.
I could envision this game with some cute cartoon illustrations of crazy home improvements on cards. It was a concept that got me excited.
Mechanic idea: Different types of workers
When I first started pondering Mansion Builder, I had been playing a lot of Keyflower. This is a game that features several different colors of meeples and uses them as a type of currency.
I started thinking that I could have different colored meeples in Mansion Builder, representing different worker skills. I could have tons of specialties like masons, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, drywall hangers, painters, landscapers, etc. I could instead have a few basic classes of workers: Regular, skilled, master. And then I could have various improvements that had costs of materials and also costs of labor, with the players bidding for all of these things.
I quickly realized, before I even got to the point of putting anything on paper, that this was way more complicated than I wanted Mansion Builder to be.
Mechanic idea: Pooled auction
In thinking about the varied workers idea, I started thinking about how players would get those workers, and I liked the idea of some sort of auction. Once I abandoned the variety of workers, I decided I wanted to focus on the auction mechanism.
Players would now bid on various improvements that were offered by contractors. This would be done in a pooled auction.
A pooled auction is a rather uncommon type of auction. Bidders all bid simultaneously. Each bidder pays however much he or she bid. The highest bidder gets first pick of the items that are for sale. The second highest bidder gets second pick, and so on. Everyone gets something, and the players are effectively bidding on choice order.
I was familiar with this type of auction from my days as an economist back in graduate school. As a matter of fact, my lone academic publication in economics was a paper I co-authored with one of my professors, Tim Salmon. He did most of the work, honestly; I mainly built and ran the experiment software that we used to put undergraduates through various auction games, while Tim did the theoretical work and the actual writing. If you’re looking for some heavy academic writing on the topic, you can find the paper here.
How it would work
Mansion Builder will proceed in a series of rounds. In each round, there are a number of improvement cards up for auction.
Players will bid in a pooled auction, with the winner getting first choice of the improvements, second place getting second choice, and so on.
Any improvement that is not selected is “sweetened” for the next round (probably putting money on it), and then new improvements are revealed.
At some point, players will be able to sell their improvements to various buyers who want various combinations of improvements. If you sell a buyer a house that has all of the improvements the buyer wants, you get bonus money.
The player with the most money at the end of the game would win.
I’ve described the initial playtest version of Mansion Builder above, but I can tell you that there were some issues I had to deal with right away. How will the physical realities of the auction work? Is having the winner determined by money a problem? (Hint: Yes, it is.) How exactly do these buyer cards work?
I’ll leave those questions for the next entry in my Design Diary: Mansion Builder series.
And shameless plug time: My kid-friendly card game, Otters, is still on Kickstarter at this very moment. It’s fully funded, so you can get a copy if you want one! The campaign runs through February 27, 2014.
Some folks say that we’re in a golden age of board games. So many creative designers and bold publishers are creating so annoy new and innovative games every year that there’s something for everyone.
Furthermore, the existence of Kickstarter has made it possible for people to publish a game without having to mortgage their homes or come up with a crazy amount of money some other way, taking a huge up front risk.
With all of this interest in games out there, it’s a bit of a gold rush. So many designers see the chance to create the next Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride, and they put out their design pan and hope to find gold. If you’re in it for the love of designing games and the desire to just have your game played by people, then this is a great idea.
But what if you’re in it for money? If you want to make a profit in the board game business as an outsider, should you design and self-publish a game?
(Disclaimer: I, personally, am not in it for the money. Well, I wouldn’t complain if I made money. But you know what I mean.)
Let’s look at the real world gold rush. The conventional wisdom is that the people who really made money during the gold rush were the people who provided supplies and services to the miners – folks who sold tools, tents, clothing, whiskey, etc.
If the same logic were to hold true for the board game gold rush, what should you provide if you want to make money?
Crowdfunding platforms – okay, Kickstarter
The biggest one is a little bit obvious. In 2013, around $55 million dollars was pledged to successfully funded games in the tabletop category on Kickstarter. Sure, some of this went to role-playing games or miniatures games, but a lot of it went to traditional board games.
Kickstarter takes a 5% cut of all pledges to successful project. This means that Kickstarter pulled in close to $3 million in fees from tabletop game projects alone last year. Not too shabby!
Of course, that ship has largely sailed. Kickstarter has a powerful network effect, where project creators want to be on Kickstarter in particular because that’s where the backers are, and backers look for projects on Kickstarter because that’s where the projects are. It’s possible for a competitor to come along and eat Kickstarter’s lunch, but it’s probably not happening any time soon.
So where else can you look to make money on the gold rush?
A big chunk of the money that board game project creators are getting is going into manufacturing the games themselves – printing cards, creating boards, crafting tokens and dice, etc.
Panda Games has done well for themselves in this area, establishing themselves as almost the default option for English-speaking game publishers who want to manufacture in China. They have English-speaking customer service staff based in Vancouver, and they’ve manufactured a ton of high-quality games with great components.
There are lots of other manufacturers out there as well, and this is an area that still has room for competition. If you’re more industrial than creative, you could explore becoming a game manufacturer. However, that’s a major undertaking.
Fulfillment / post-crowdfunding management / distribution
Most small game publishers aren’t thrilled about the prospect of having to actually ship out thousands of games to backers around the world, keeping straight all of the mailing addresses and add-ons and such.
This is where various fulfillment and other post-crowdfunding management services come into play. Companies like Game Salute and Impressions have various roles to play in getting games out there, whether to backers or to retailers. Again, another area where competition is possible.
If you design a game, sooner or later you’re going to need graphic design. A good graphic designer can help with:
Kickstarter page graphics
And so on
If I were a talented graphic designer, I’d be tempted to set myself up as the go-to person for independently published board games. There’s not likely to be a massive payout, but there’s good, steady work with so many games entering the pipeline.
The trick is to educate designers that you need to PAY for graphic design work up front. I keep seeing people designing their first game asking where they can find a graphic designer who’s willing to work up front and then get paid if a Kickstarter campaign funds.
Designers: Stop doing that! Paying your graphic designer is one of those investments you have to make out of pocket up front, putting some of your own money on the line.
Okay, off the soapbox… for a moment
I only separate this out from graphic design because they’re very different skill sets. Yes, some people do both graphic design and illustration, but I’ve run into more people who specialize in one or the other.
Illustration, perhaps even more than graphic design, can make or break a game on Kickstarter. If backers see great-looking art, a lot of them sign up on the spot (as long as the rest of the campaign isn’t a complete mess).
And just as with graphic design, game designers / publishers need to pay for whatever pre-Kickstarter illustrations they need up front. Yes, I know it’s expensive. Too bad. Commission enough art to give your backers the idea of what the overall game will look like, and then commission the rest after the campaign funds.
Anyway, a talented illustrator can find steady work in the board game field. There’s a lot of competition here, but there are opportunities for illustrators to stake their ground as “specializing in board game illustration” for sure.
There are probably other game-related peripheral businesses that could be profitable: Marketing, Kickstarter management, accounting, legal, etc. I don’t know as much about those, but the general idea is that if money is in motion (as with Kickstarter and board games), then there are business opportunities for people who can add value.
As for me, I’m not in game design for the money. I have a good day job, and I want game design to be profitable but I don’t expect it to support my family. If I were looking for an income related to games, I would be considering one of these peripheral businesses.
You can make a steady income doing the less-celebrated work around the edges of the board game field, or you can try to dig for that rare gold nugget. Even though it’s less profitable, I’m going to keep on digging because I love game design.
I have a guest post over on the Stonemaier Games “Kickstarter Lessons” blog today, all about the various ways of making prototype cards for board and card games.
The summary from the end of the post:
“For me, card prototyping is now a three- (or four-) step process:
Step 0: If the game can easily be tested with normal playing cards, start there to work out very rough mechanics. Not applicable to all designs.
Step 1: Excel spreadsheet, printed, cut up, inserted into sleeves with Magic cards. This is where the bulk of my design work happens.
Step 2: Print directly on cards when I want nice-looking prototypes to send to blind playtesters demonstrate at conventions or pitch to publishers.
Step 3: Go with DriveThruCards to print final review copies or actual print runs of my games.”
And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t say THANK YOU to all of you who jumped on the Kickstarter campaign for my card game, Otters, on day 1… leaving the project funded just nine and a half hours after launch! Thank you all so much.
I’m so excited to announce that the first ever Kickstarter project run by Clay Crucible Games is now live on Kickstarter!
Otters is a kid-friendly card game full of adorable pictures of otters. It plays in about 10 minutes. The basic deck lets you play with two players (or two teams of two players each), or you can get a double deck to let you play with three or four players.
A $12 pledge gets you a deck shipped in the US, and you can up your pledge by $9 if you want a second deck.
You can even add in custom cloth bags to carry your game in if you want.
Editor’s note: This is my first blog post to originate on the Clay Crucible Games site directly instead of on my old site, Online Dungeon Master. I intend to ultimately bring my board game related posts from Online Dungeon Master over here, but I’m starting with this one.
Those of you who may have been eagerly following my blog posts about my National Game Design Month (NaGaDeMon) 2013 project, Otters, might be wondering what the heck ever happened with that game. Wasn’t I just about done with it in late November?
Well, yes, I was! And I was actually planning to put it up on DriveThruCards as a print-on-demand item. But then something came up:
After asking for opinions on some game- and Kickstarter-related Facebook groups, I decided that I might as well run a Kickstarter project for Otters rather than just tossing it on DriveThru and calling it a day.
There are a few reasons I decided to go this direction.
First, there’s the exposure. Lots of gamers are looking for games on Kickstarter, and they may well discover Otters if it’s there when they might not discover it if it were only on DriveThru. Now, that by itself isn’t much of a reason to run a Kickstarter project for a game, but it is a reason to consider.
Second, there’s packaging. While I love the quality of the cards from DriveThru, the only box they offer is a clear plastic box to drop your cards in. I’ve ordered some of these boxes, and I just don’t love them. If I order the cards shipped to me from DriveThru, I can put them in a box that I like a bit better, one with an actual Otters label on it.
Finally, there’s the potential for enhancement. Otters is ready to go right now, even before the Kickstarter launches. I ordered a small print run from DriveThru so that I would have copies to send to reviewers, and I even have some extras left over from that print run that I’ll offer to Kickstarter backers who want a game ASAP.
But I don’t have to leave Otters in its current state.
If the Kickstarter does well, it opens the possibility that I could hire an illustrator for cute custom otter images rather than sticking with the (also cute) photos that the cards have right now.
If the Kickstarter does REALLY well, I could even consider a much bigger print run from a more traditional manufacturing company, which could let me have Otters packaged in a real board game box (as opposed to the very humble flip-top cardboard boxes that I’ve been packaging review copies in).
Now, I’m keeping my expectations for the Otters Kickstarter campaign firmly in check. I’m only planning on trying to raise $500. But if it gets to the several thousand dollars level, well, I can improve the quality of the product. And that’s worth going to Kickstarter for.
Finally, the other reason I’m interested in Kickstarting Otters is that I want to get the experience of running a Kickstarter campaign. While I expect to mainly be a designer who designs game for others to publish, I want to know what it’s like to be a publisher, specifically one who uses Kickstarter. I did publish the first edition of Chaos & Alchemy myself, but I paid for that out of pocket. Could Clay Crucible Games be a full-on publisher one day? Probably not, but Otters is the perfect project for me to explore that possibility.
So there you have it: Otters will be coming soon to Kickstarter! I’m targeting a late January / early February launch, so keep your eyes peeled!
And if you want a sneak preview of what the Kickstarter page is going to look like, check it out here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1125132758/1664206759?token=b3fc11c9. As of this writing (January 15) the page isn’t 100% complete; I still need to add the main video, the learn-to-play video and some photos of the review copies (plus more reviews as they come in). But everything else is there. Let me know what you think as far as improvements go, either here on the blog, over on the Kickstarter preview page itself, or via email at ClayCrucible@gmail.com.