Monday, February 1

The Art of the Matter

Back when I ran Reiver Games I made four games. The first Border Reivers was a hand-made limited edition, and I did almost everything myself, including the art (except the box cover, that was an original painting by my dad, a retired art teacher and artist). It was ... basic. Very basic. But back in the days when a self-published game was a fairly novel item, it was enough to get me by, and didn't put off the 100 customers to whom I sold a copy of Border Reivers too much.

For my second game, I got a friend who was a computer games artist to do some really cool Frankenstein-themed art, and because he was a friend, I got it dirt cheap. It still added a £1 per copy to the total cost though, a not insignificant amount. While I loved the art on the It's Alive! components, I was less enamoured of the box art, and it received some criticism from punters, so when it came to making a second print run, this time aimed at shops at distributors, I asked him to do another box. Sadly, I don't think that box was any better.

My third game was Carpe Astra, and again I got the friend to do the art, again at mate's rates (though with a print run of 2,000 I could afford to pay a bit more this time, despite the fact I was aiming to sell to distributors and hence was pitching at 40% of retail for a manufacturing and art cost. Again I was a bit mixed on the art, I loved bits of it, but I think the box art could have been better, especially with the target market in mind.

For my final Reiver game I splashed out and hired bona-fide board game artist Harald Lieske to do the art. Harald's done the art for several games I own (Vikings, the Spiecherstadt, Puerto Rico) and several other famous ones (Dominion, The Settlers of Catan), so clearly a big name with loads of board game experience. He knows what looks good on a box and how to do all the art ready for printing. I was doing a relatively small print run (3,000 copies), so my budget was limited (but many times what I'd paid for the previous games!). We eventually reached an agreement where he'd meet my budget in return for simpler art than he was originally planning. I was delighted with how Sumeria turned out, it's still my favourite art associated with one of my games by quite some distance.

What brings this to mind is two things: Zombology and Kickstarter. With Zombology (which I've finally finished - one of my goals for the year ticked off already!), I went back to my roots and made a short hand-made print-run doing everything myself including the art and cutting out boxes and all the cards by hand. Actually, that's not strictly true, I took some of the icons from Game-icons.net, either as was, or slightly tweaked.

Complete Zombology prototype

But the point still stands, the art is mostly mine and pretty basic, this is not a beautiful game. While I hope it's not so distracting as to put off the 28 customers I need to cover my costs, it's not winning any art awards.

In these days of Kickstarter, games need to be beautiful to attract punters, and despite the vast wealth of games on Kickstarter, generally the art is of a very high quality - it's almost expected. My friend Tim's game Toast is a great example of that. To set up a games company these days you need to either be a great artist (Daniel Solis, I'm looking at you), have a wealthy good friend who's an artist (do they exist?) or to fold a large art cost into the manufacturing cost of the game. I can't help but think that life would have been easier as Reiver Games or Zombology would have sold faster if I was a great artist or if I'd set up a partnership with a wealthy, games-loving artistic genius.

As I continue with my own game designing (and conceivably self-publishing), I want to work on and improve my artistic skills. Practice might not make perfect, but it's definitely going to improve my skills, which can't hurt in making my games easier to sell.

In other news, January was a staggeringly good month, 59 games played, Zombology construction finished and a weekend in Coventry with Tim and a weekend in York with Paul. I wish February would be as great, but a work trip to Boston, MA is going to get in the way of things, so I'm not expecting much. At least I'm hoping to finish off the print on demand version of Zombology as I planned in my 2016 goals.

Monday, January 25

The Economics of a Very Small Print Run

Back in May I talked about the economics of a small print run of a game. At that point I was intending to start a second hobby publishing company (a la Reiver Games, my first, unsuccessful attempt) and make small print runs of hand-made games.

A promotion at work, coupled with the realisation that I really didn't have time for the sort of promotion required to sell 150 games in a year around my family commitments meant that pipe dream died, but I then resurrected a lighter version of it for NaGa Demon last year: instead of a 150 copy run - just twenty for the twenty friends and family who had pre-ordered a copy when I announced the 150 copy run.

I was going to make the run at cost, so I wasn't trying to make any money any more, just reward those supporters who'd backed me instinctively and do something fun for NaGa DeMon. I'd originally priced the 150 copy run at £9, cheap enough to encourage sales but expensive enough to make a decent return on investment, so I could invest further in future games. I decided to do the very small print run at the same price to be fair to those who had ordered at that price.

I found a local printer who could not only do it at that price, but also do the box labels as actual labels - on vinyl which (I hoped) would save a massive amount of hassle (affixing the labels to the boxes for Border Reivers and the hand-made first edition of It's Alive! was a massive pain and time sink), the only problem was that I needed to make thirty copies to (almost) break even. A quick post on BGG and another six were pre-ordered, leaving just four of the run unclaimed.

I needed greyboard (that's chipboard I think in the US) for the boxes, thick card for the box inserts and then the printing done. I had thick card and greyboard kicking around the house (what self-respecting game designer doesn't?) so I donated those to the cause for free which just left the cost of the printing.

The printing was going to be £255 for thirty copies, selling all of those at £9 would yield £270, but I'm keeping one, and I've given one to the designer of the font I used in the game in lieu of payment so if I sell the rest that's £252. I've also got to pay for the postage and packing to the US for the font-creator's copy, another £5.55, so if I sell out of the print run I'll have lost £8.55.

Once I've finished making the hand-made limited edition, I'm going to make it available on Drive Thru Cards as a Print on Demand game, which if it's priced sensibly might reclaim that £8.55 if I sell a bunch of copies - clearly I'm not getting rich from this, but hopefully not losing too much either.

I've got eight copies left at home now, five of which I've finished and three of which are just awaiting their cards (an hour and a half's work). Two of those eight are definitely spoken for, two of them were pre-ordered but I've not had confirmation from the orderers (muninnhuginn and Richard W, if you're reading this, please let me know if you still want one!) and four are as yet unclaimed. If you'd like one they're £9 plus shipping (£4.10 to the UK, £4.75 to Europe and £5.55 elsewhere). Americans and Candians are definitely best off waiting for the Drive Thru Cards version, which will be much cheaper for you, unless you're desperate for a signed and numbered limited edition copy!

Monday, January 18

More KickStarter Thoughts

As I'm sure you know, I'm not a fan of KickStarter (see Exhibit A and Exhibit B), until this week I've only backed one project on KickStarter, and as unlikely as it seems, it wasn't a board game.

This distrust of KickStarter, coupled with my natural risk-adversity meant I didn't consider KickStarter as a potential vehicle for Zombology last year, I just chose to repeat the most successful period of my Reiver Games days: the hand-made games. As it turned out, I didn't even manage that, with the promotion at work meaning I limited my ambitions even further to just making enough copies for the twenty fans who pre-ordered a copy when I announced the 150 copy run back in June.

What has got me thinking about KickStarter again, and what a game changer it is for the hobby board game publishing industry is my mate Tim. I've known Tim for nearly twenty-five years and we've spent that period gaming together at every opportunity, from Magic in the early days through miniatures, computer games and board games. Tim and I live about 200 miles apart (and have done for twenty years), but despite the distance and our two young families we try to get together a few times a year for some gaming (which now features his young son during the day and then late night sessions just the two of us after our wives bow out at a sensible time). Tim's been a professional computer games programmer for eighteen years and he's been working on a social deduction board game for the last year or two. When we've got together we've discussed and played it together and I've been providing (hopefully helpful!) information about board games publishing and playtested it for him too. Tim decided to go down the KickStarter route from the get-go, the game is themed around nobles poisoning each other at a formal banquet and he wanted the game to come with goblets and napkins for the full atmospheric effect. Clearly, this wasn't going to be something he could just cobble together like I've done for Zombology. Tim's done the research, sent preview copies to a whole bunch of very enthusiastic reviewers and got it live on KickStarter this week.

It's a really fun game, so I was one of the first backers (to be honest, I would have been even if I didn't like it! Tim's backed me through many years of games publishing, it's great to be able to return the favour), which means I'm now watching his KickStarter enfold.

Until now, I've almost entirely avoided KickStarter for board games. I pay no attention to games being KickStarted, I don't visit the KickStarter website, I don't read the Crowdfunding round-ups on BGG or anything. I know it's completely changed the market, from established publishers like Queen Games using it, through the new publishers like Tasty Minstrel and Stonemaier whose business models revolve around, to the massive successes of any project involving miniatures and Exploding Kittens. But I'm aware of it in the loosest possible sense.

So I'm watching Tim start his company by publishing his first game while thinking of my first attempt with Border Reivers and my second almost attempt with Zombology last year. It took me a year to sell 100 copies of Border Reivers (and co-incidentally a year to hand-make the damn things), a year during which I went to conventions, games clubs, ran competitions on BGG and blogged obsessively. Tim got his first 100 sales within 48 hours. I didn't consider getting a game professionally manufactured until I'd got two games and 400 sales under my belt because the £15,000 outlay scared the pants off me (thankfully most of it was life insurance money!). Tim's outlay is vastly smaller than that, and he will go straight to professional manufacturing with the money in hand from pre-ordering customers (assuming his KickStarter is successful). The two stories couldn't be more different. It's probably just as well that I got promoted and bottled out of starting up another publishing company, I'm now hopelessly out of date and my plan of hand-crafting 150 copies looks like something from the last century to a market that lives on KickStarter, as evidenced by the fact that it took me six months to get 25 pre-orders for Zombology.

Obviously, Tim's got it easier because he's got a great game with neat components, fantastic art (it helps working with computer game artists!) and slick videos and website, but watching his backers climb towards his goal reminds me how much has changed since I was struggling to service my bank loan during the latter stages of Reiver Games.

Anyway, please check out Tim's KickStarter if it sounds like something you'd be interested in - I need it to get funded so I can get my prototype upgraded into a proper copy :-)

In other news, I've made good progress on Zombology this week towards my goal of finishing the limited edition run this month. I've now got 25 copies completely finished and by tomorrow will have shipped 20 of those. Nearly there!

Monday, January 11

Turning The Dragon Inside Out

It's been a great start to 2016. Last weekend I spent a couple of days with my old friend Tim (I've known him since school, but never went to school with him). During the days we hung out with our families and played with the kids, while discussing his forthcoming KickStarter for a game he's designed (Toast: a game about poisoning each other during banquets). Then in the evenings we had a couple of late nights of gaming. All told I'd played 11 games by the 3rd of January!

Monday I was back at work and it was Newcastle Playtest on Tuesday. I'd missed quite a few towards the end of last year with various work trips getting in the way so it was great to get along and catch up with everyone. We also played a couple of games of Dragon Dance (my NaGa DeMon game from 2014) and one of Zombology (I'm no longer playtesting that, but I'd delivered a few copies of the handmade version and it's one of the staples of Newcastle Playtest, played almost every session since November 2013 when I started work on it - even sessions I didn't make it to!

Wednesday was my regular Games Night with an attendance of eight and seven games played, and then I played a couple more games of Dragon Dance at lunchtime on Thursday.

Why such a focus on Dragon Dance you're wondering? With Zombology finished and the handmade run hopefully being completed and shipped this month, I need something new to work on. I've not really touched Dragon Dance since the end of NaGa DeMon 2014. I'd left it kind of working: there was some bluff and strategy involved and there was nothing obviously wrong with it, but it wasn't particularly good either.

It's a game of simultaneous action selection with a bit of bluff: each action consists of a card and a die that affects the efficacy of the card. I wanted to capture the feel of combat where you're acting simultaneously using your opponent's slight tells to guess what they are about to do so you can counter or attack as appropriate. I've (technically still!) got a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, so I wanted to get the feeling I remember from sparring and competitions.

So in the game each player simultaneously chooses one of their limited number of dice, and then once you've seen the die your opponent has chosen, simultaneously chooses a card - the die is the tell and can be used to bluff your opponent or to telegraph your next move.

So far, so good. You've got a small number of dice and when you use a card and a die they are both put aside until you give up a turn to reclaim them. The die add an element of randomness but also limit the number of turns before you have to catch your breath. I'm thinking of changing it so you choose the card first and each card has three options: attack, defend and rest, the die you use will determine which of the options you do. This effectively turns each card three cards, increasing the number of options every round.

On Sunday, I even considered getting rid of the dice altogether and instead having a selection step after the card reveal to choose which part of the card to choose. Anyway, I've got ideas again, and some things to try out. Dragon is back in play. I also finished another four copies of Zombology and took payment for another two of the finished ones.

P.S. I finished the week on 27 plays by the 10th. If I could keep that rate up I'd beat my best ever month (66 plays in January 2014 when The Wife and The Daughter were banished due to my radioactivity). I won't though. I hope to finish up above 40; 50 is a possibility but above sixty is very unlikely!

Monday, January 4

2016 Goals

We're four days into 2016, so it's about time I set myself some goals for the year. I've done it for the last three years and I'm doing the same again this year. As before, there are four categories: blogging, gaming, game design and app development.

Blogging
Since my page views tanked in May last year I've no idea what is an achievable page views goal any more, so I'm just not going to set myself one, instead just these two:

  • Blog every Monday in 2016
  • Do something for NaGa DeMon

Not sure what to do for NaGa DeMon at this point, we'll see how I get on with the remaining games in my stable (Border Reivers Second Edition, Codename: Vacuum and Dragon Dance) before I commit to anything.

Gaming
For the last few years I've set myself the goal of playing at least one game for every day of the year (i.e. 366 in 2016). I usually nail this one (over 400 plays last year), but if I pull this off I'll reach 4,000 plays recorded in BGG (since August 2006), so well worth going for again.

Over the last couple of years I've also set more structured goals: play every game in my collection at least once in 2014 and have played all the games in my collection at least ten times by the end of 2015. I found this to be a real bind last year with it taking over the games played at Games Night to the exclusion of others' preferences so I'm not going to do anything like that this year. I'll still use my app to keep track of which games I've not played in 2016 and which ones I've not played ten times for honing my collection purposes, but it's not a goal and so I'll not be sucking the fun out of Games Night with it.

Instead, I'm going to aim to play 24 new to me games in 2016. That's a 50% increase on the 16 I managed last year. Because the vast majority of my gaming is either on my iPad or at my Games Night, we almost always play games I know. Time to broaden my horizons. Trips to visit gaming friends and Newcastle Gamers will also help with this I hope.

Game Design
Finish him! I need to finish off the Zombology hand-made run I started in November for NaGa DeMon and get the art up on Drive Thru Cards for the Print on Demand version. Let's say end of January for making the hand made run and end of Feb for the Print on Demand version. After that, get back into game design, either on one of the other games mentioned above or something new.

App Development
Finish him II: Revenge of the him! I've just finished the expanded Duolingo German track, so I need something new to get my teeth stuck into, and the app I have in development should be that thing. I meant to finish it last year, but didn't get round to it, so let's get it out the door in 2016.

That should be plenty to keep me out of trouble, let's see if I can actually finish them all this year!

Monday, December 28

2015 The Year In Review

For the third year in a row I set myself some goals at the beginning of the year in four categories: blogging, playing games, designing games and app development. They were meant to be a stretch, but achievable so here's how I got on.

Blogging
I set myself three blogging goals this year: 10% growth in page views, blog every Monday and do something for NaGa DeMon. All modest and achievable, or so I thought. Blog page views have been climbing steadily since I started blogging again back in 2012, but for some reason around April they suddenly dived. Whether Blogger have started blocking spam bots or I've suddenly become far more boring than I already was (which would be a real stretch!), the readership tanked and never recovered. I was aiming for 45.5K page views and I only managed 36K, which was 15% down on last year. Epic fail. I did manage to blog every Monday (as far as I recall) and I did something for NaGa DeMon (publishing the handmade run of Zombology) so mixed success on the blogging front.

My most popular posts were:

  1. Why Aren't I KickStarting
  2. After The Drought, The Deluge
  3. New Games Company Checklist

Gaming
My gaming goals were to play at least 365 games and to have played every game in my collection at least ten times (with exceptions). At this point, with a few days to go I've racked up 413 plays with the following over ten plays this year:

  • 58 plays: Unpublished prototype (mostly Zombology)
  • 27 plays: Ra (I think all on the iPad)
  • 22 plays: King of Tokyo (one of the games I had to play ten times - nailed that one!)
  • 20 plays: Carcassonne (all but one play on the iPad)
  • 20 plays: Pandemic (iPad)
  • 17 plays: Hey! That's My Fish (iPad)
  • 15 plays: Lords of Waterdeep (iPad)
  • 12 plays: Galaxy Trucker (ten plays list again and all on the iPad)
  • 12 plays: Stone Age (mostly, but not all, iPad)
  • 11 plays: No Thanks! (A Games Night filler favourite)
  • 10 plays: Coup (Games Night favourite)
  • 10 plays: Martian Dice (some in the flesh, some on the app I wrote for my phone)

The other goal was to have played every game I own at least ten times by the end of the year. Not necessarily during this year, if I've played it at least ten times in the past I didn't have to play it this year at all. I started the year with seventy-something plays required to hit that goal, and I didn't quite make it (there are four games at nine and two at eight plays left at this point and that's almost certainly how it's going to end). Close. But no cigar.

I've found the ten plays goal useful for honing my collection (I gave away 11 Nimmt!, 20th Century, Divinare, Euphoria, El Grande and Thurn und Taxis) but to be honest I've also found it to be a bind, it drove the games selection at almost every Games Night I had and sucked the fun out of things a bit. I mustn't get myself into a similar mess next year.

Another notable thing this year was the start of what I hope will be a large part of my life from now on. I've been a gamer since I was little. I've been a dad for three and a half years. But this year, I became a Gamer Dad. The Daughter has a few (very simple) games made by Orchard Toys: Where's My Cupcake?, The Lunch Box Game, A Game of Ladybirds and, since Christmas, Monster Dominos. She's learnt to take turns, roll dice, draw tiles and match symbols. She's also learnt to win and is in the process of learning to lose gracefully (that one might take a bit longer!). Where's My Cupcake?, a particular favourite, almost got a listing above with nine plays this year. As yet none of these games require any skill, it's just taking turns and following the rules. I don't want to rush her into proper gaming, I want it to be something that she wants to do for fun, rather than something I push onto her because I want to do it. We'll see how next year develops and what makes it into the list of ten least ten plays at the end of next year.

Designing Games
Only one goal here, self publish a game again this year with my own art. Well it was a roller coaster, but I just about pulled this one off. It started out with the goal of publishing a 50 or 100 copy run of either Zombology or Dragon Dance. Then that turned into making a 150 copy run of Zombology at £9 each. I took 20 pre-orders and started getting ready for that, setting up a bank account and everything and then disaster: I got promoted at work. Ok, that's not really a disaster, but it put paid to any notion I had of becoming a hobby games publisher again. At the last minute I decided to just make the twenty copies for the pre-orderers for NaGa DeMon at cost which I hoped I could get around the £9 I had initially advertised. Do you see what I did there? Folding two goals into one? Cheeky, but I make the rules so, I figure, acceptable. It turned out I needed to make thirty to hit the £9 cost so I wouldn't lose any money on it (but not make any either). During November I only finished fourteen of them (so I failed NaGa DeMon!) but the others just need the cards doing and I've shipped six of them, so that counts as a success as far as my goal for the year goes.

App Development
I'm still slowly learning German using the excellent Duolingo, but there's some stuff I'd like it to do that it doesn't, most notably, show verb conjugations and adjective declensions in a table and present similar words together. I'd started writing an app for that on my phone, and my goal was to finish and publish that this year. I've made some progress on that (it's now useable and I do use it on my phone) but it's not yet ready for public consumption, not even as an early beta/alpha, so another failure I'm afraid. I want to go back to working on that next year.

All in all it's been another good year, hard work and I didn't achieve everything I set out to at the beginning, but still good fun! Here's hoping for another good year next year.

Monday, December 21

Nothing To See Here, Move Along

As expected, it was a week of no progress. After Monday's trip to Manchester, we had several nights of interrupted sleep as The Daughter was down with a filthy cold that kept waking her (and by extension us) up throughout the night. I also had a couple of nights out with work: our Christmas party and a night out with the numerous visitors who were over for our three day planning meeting. With the nights out, the broken sleep and then coming down with the filthy cold myself, it was spectacularly unproductive.

This week will at least feature a Games Night (I've managed to cram an extra one in tonight, for Christmas, complete with mulled wine and mince pies :-) ), and I'll take a bunch of games down to Bristol for our family Christmas trip, so hopefully there'll be a few more games played before the year is out.

When I get back from Bristol I need to buy some packaging so I can start posting the Zombology copies and finish off the final 16 sets of cards. Then I can get the Print on Demand art done and start on something new (or at least different!) for 2016.

I hope those of you who celebrate it have a great Christmas, and I'll see you on the flip side for my 2015 round up post next Monday.