Monday, August 24

Print on Demand: A Review

After considering the prolific Daniel Solis' Kigi for a while, I happened to catch a note of his on Google+ a couple of weeks ago stating that it was the final day of the sale he runs every summer. So I decided to jump in an order a copy of Kigi from Drive Thru Cards.

Kigi

Kigi is a beautiful game (that much is clear from all the pictures I've seen of it) and it struck me as a good opportunity to check out how Print on Demand (POD) works from a customer's perspective while considering it as a publisher (since it's another option I've been considering for publishing Zombology).

The process
I ordered the game one Saturday night from the Drive Thru Cards website. Pretty standard stuff, it was easy to use and all went very smoothly. I bought Kigi ($9 sale price) and a plastic deck box ($1) which all seemed very reasonable. Shipping to the UK was $14.70 which was a bit galling, that's more than the game! Still with the exchange rate the whole thing came to about £16, which doesn't seem to bad for a small print run game.

I got an email on Tuesday telling me they had shipped the game, which is not bad considering they had to print it and cut it out first. Shipping took eight days - arriving on the following Wednesday in a little box which protected it nicely during transit.

Pros

  • The biggest advantage of POD from publisher's point of view is the lack of associated hassle and cost. If I make a hand-made game and sell it through my website there's a lot of time and effort required, plus a lot of upfront cost if I don't KickStart it. With POD all I'd have to do is upload the files and choose a retail price, no cost or effort involved.
  • The cards were very well made, better than I could manage by hand.
  • Shipping to the US/Canada will be quicker and cheaper than from me in the UK.
  • Cross-selling opportunities - people going there to by one of Daniel's or another designer's games might see an ad for Zombology and add it to their order.


Cons

  • Shipping to the UK (where a lot of my friends & family customers are) is exorbitant.
  • I prefer card games in tray and lid boxes with large format rules - I broke the plastic deck box the day I got it and having the rules on half a dozen cards is a bit fiddly, it's easy to get them muddled up.


Summary
If the shipping to the UK wasn't so high, I'd be very tempted by Drive Thru Cards. There are other options (e.g. The Gamecrafter) that might have more affordable shipping and different packaging options. I need to investigate those too.

In other news, I'm making decent progress on my German app, it's coming along very nicely. What I really need to do now is get a load of vocabulary into it. I need to start reading the data from a file, rather than hard-coding it in.

Monday, August 17

Produce / Consume

As I'm sure most of you are aware, the title is a reference to Race for the Galaxy, one of my favourite games and one which I've played exactly 150 times according to BoardGameGeek.

There's a sliding scale of producery-consumerness (a technical term, check out the Big Five personality traits) on which, I'm assuming, most people sit slightly nearer the Consumer end than the Producer end. Some people are happiest reading a great book, or watching a great film or shopping for new clothes. Some people however are happiest when making things, whether knitting cardigans for babies (thanks Mum!), writing novels or painting.

It turns out I'm definitely towards the producer end of that scale. By day I'm a computer programmer, and I love that I can type words and bend a computer to my will, creating programs and apps that are useful, interesting, attractive or just fun. By night, I'm just as bad. Historically it's been writing (bits of!) computer games, painting miniatures, designing worlds and stories as a DM and obviously designing board games.

It struck me this week that probably the bit I enjoy most about game designing is actually the graphic design. Working with a very limited set of artistic skills to make prototypes or hand-made games that are attractive, or at least functionally well designed. Don't get me wrong, I also enjoy trying to wrestle in my head with the game design to design something that's fun to play and there's something zen-like about cranking out well-made hand-made games, each one lovingly hand-crafted but done well. And the end result is satisfying too, when you hear from a gamer who has played one of your games and really enjoys it. I'm not a great game designer, so it's rare enough that I hear from a gamer who loves one of my games, but when it does it brings a smile to my face every time - I've brought pleasure to another human being, often someone I've never met (and probably never will). That's pretty cool.

Why this philosophical train of thought? I've been agonising over whether or not to do a hand-made run of Zombology for a couple of months now, after bravely/foolishly committing to doing it at the beginning of the year. The concerns that have given me most trouble are not having enough time to get to the conventions I need to attend to drum up sales and whether there's still a market for hand-made games now that everyone can make a professional run of a game they've thought of through KickStarter.

I've asked the question in a couple of places and the advice seems to be that I should embrace KickStarter and do what I plan through there. Assuming I was successful on KickStarter, most or all of the games would be pre-sold so convention attendance would be less critical, so that could be a plus point to going that way. Anyway, Im not leaning toward KickStarter, despite my earlier antipathy towards it. I'm flighty like that.

In other news, I've got some feedback from a couple of playtest groups. Both of them only played it three player (the weakest I think). The other Playtest UK group played it a couple of times, and didn't seem overly enamoured. In the second game they tried changing a couple of rules. They did however provide really good feedback which I need to go through and learn from. The other group had played it before (about a year ago) and really liked this new version, playing it eight times (though still only three player). They suggested a rules clarification that I'll have to make shortly.

This week is mostly about trains. I hope to make some good progress on the Zombology art upgrades on my way to and from my quarterly hospital visit to Sheffield on Wednesday.

Monday, August 10

Digital Leaps and Conceptual Bounds

I've been working on a couple of things this week, making good progress on one, and working out in my head what to do with the other.

The first is my learning German app that I'm writing for my phone. This week I've made loads of progress on in. The first half of the week was refactoring the crap out of it, removing a load of duplication, specialist classes and generics and just making the whole thing far, far simpler behind the scenes.

That set me up well for the second half of the week where I added staged repetition and improved the styling quite a lot. There's still very little vocabulary in there, but I figure once I've got it working how I want I can start adding vocabulary wholesale. For the moment just getting it to the point where it's a useful tool for myself will be great. I'm really pleased with the progress I've made this week, it feels like it's developing rapidly despite working on it in my free time around work and a family.

The second thing alluded to in the title is the Zombology graphic design. I've got a moderately attractive (if very simple and hobby-esque) prototype that has been slowly improving over the last year or so. I'm fairly happy with a lot of it now, it's simple, but it's ok for a hand-made print run. The weakest links now are the zombie overrun card, the pay rise card and the round marker cards (which also feature zombies). If I'm honest the weakness is my piss-poor attempt at drawing a zombie. It's bad. It's also not really in keeping with the rest of the graphic design, so it's letting the side down and standing out as well.

I've had an idea this week about how I can come up with something that's more in keeping and within my limited art skills. So the next thing to do is break out my abysmal old, slow laptop and crack on in InDesign/Illustrator. I've got four hours of train journeys in a couple of weeks for my clinical trial hospital visit, but I hope to make a start on this stuff before then. Hopefully, I'll also have some feedback from the other Playtest UK groups soon too, which will give me a more unbiased view of the quality of the game.

In other news, I've crossed Hansa Teutonica off my ten plays list with a game at Games Night last Wednesday and I'm leaning more towards a hand-made, stretch goal/pledge level free run on KickStarter (despite my KickStarter misgivings). Need to do some more market research still, but the idea is taking root in my head.


Monday, August 3

Market Research

Is there still a market for lovingly hand-crafted short print run games in the age of KickStarter? That's the question I asked on BGG this week in an effort to help me choose whether or not to dive in to self-publishing again as I did back in the early days of Reiver Games.

It struck me that for all my prevaricating here on the blog what I really needed to answer was two questions:

  1. Am I prepared and able to spend enough of my free time on it to make it successful, and,
  2. Are there 150 people out there who would be willing to buy the game?


I need to answer question one myself, and that's what a lot of the soul-searching has been about this last month or so, but if the answer to question two is no then question one is a moot point. I can't answer question two myself, I can only have a guess at it. So asking the question on BGG is a way to get a better understanding of the changes in the market that have occurred since I stopped hobby publishing back in 2008.

I've had quite a few answers, lots of them pointing towards using KickStarter, even with the hand-made limited edition run that I'm planning. Assuming these respondents are right and the lack of stretch goals, pledge levels and professional manufacturing doesn't sink it on KickStarter, I might have to get over my dislike of KickStarter and look into that. There's definitely a lot to be said for the free marketing that comes from running a KickStarter campaign.

In other news I've been cracking on with writing my German language app on my phone again this week, moving towards getting the spaced repetition functionality in there.

I also made it along to Newcastle Gamers on Saturday and knocked a play of Hansa Teutonica off my 'play every game I own ten times' goal. I also got to try Zombie Dice and The Palaces of Carrara for the first time too.

This week it's Newcastle Playtest on Tuesday, but sadly I'm going to have to miss it again.

Monday, July 27

A Digital Digression II

So I've made a bit of progress on Zombology this week, posting blind playtesting copies to the Leeds and London Playtest UK groups, I'm hoping to get initial feedback from those groups in a week or two, once they've met and had a chance to get a game or two in. I also got a few games in at Newcastle Playtest on Tuesday, my first attendance there in a while.

I still haven't decided what I want to do re. board game publishing, so in the meantime I've been doing some work on my German learning app instead. I loved Duolingo, which I've spent a lot of time on, but I've finished the course now. I still practice every now and again when things show up as needing refreshing but certainly not every day any more. The main thing I didn't like about Duolingo was the lack of structure. You seemed to learn words in a haphazard fashion, and it was hard to see things that were related at the same time. I learn well when I can tabulate things in my head, so I've been writing another app for my phone to provide a more structured learning experience for myself.

I started it months ago, and then in the Zombology publishing related excitement I shelved it for a while. Last week I went to Manchester on the train again for work on my own (which is unusual). I had my laptop with me to use in a demo once I got there, which gave me an opportunity to do some development on the train, and since then I've been cracking on, making some decent progress. At the moment I'm focusing on getting the basic functionality in there, rather than lots of vocabulary. That can always come later once it works. Hopefully I'll find it useful as my language learning journey continues.

I think I'm now waiting for the Zombology feedback before I make any decision on the publishing side of things. There are still three options I'm considering:


I had an established publisher who was vaguely interested, but he wanted to see blind playtesting feedback, which at the time I didn't really have. So getting the feedback from the Playtest UK network is useful for that route and will hopefully lead to a better game regardless of which route I take.

Monday, July 20

Harnessing the Power of the Network

The Newcastle Playtest group of which I'm (theoretically at least) an assistant organiser is part of a larger network of playtest groups across the UK. Playtest UK started in London and then spread to Cambridge before we became its northern-most offshoot. Since our creation, groups in Cardiff, Brighton, Leeds and Enfield have also joined, further strengthening the network. The group runs playtesting sessions at a number of UK conventions and members have published several games including Elysium, Relic Runners and Pocket Imperium. Brett J. Gilbert one of the co-organisers in Cambridge, who submitted a great game to me in my Reiver Games days, has since had great success being nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2013 and the Kennerspiel des Jahres this year.

Since my appeal for blind playtesters last week on my blog garnered a grand total of zero applicants, I've decided to harness the power of the Playtest UK group by sending copies of Zombology to a few of the other groups for testing and feedback. Leeds and London have already volunteered (thanks!) and I've agreed to playtest a game for the London group in return. Hopefully this can be an ongoing arrangement where we harness the power of the wider group to gain access to willing (and knowledgable) playtesters who we don't have a close friendship with to gain the honest, critical feedback that you need as part of your game development. Blind playtesting is important for just that reason: to get people to test the rules without you there to clear up any inconsistencies and also to get honest feedback that isn't tempered by friendship. Honest feedback is critical to get a better understanding of how your game will be received outside of the group of friends you usually play it with.

I spent Sunday evening printing and assembling their copies and will pop them in the post today. I look forward to getting an outsider's view of Zombology and using that information to help me plan my next steps.

In other news, Newcastle Playtest had to rearrange our last meeting, since very few of us could make it a couple of weeks ago. It's now tomorrow. I'm in Manchester for the day for work again but fortunately we meet near the train station, so I can amble straight over on my return, I'll just arrive a little later than usual. I'm hoping to get some feedback from the guys on the new version, which is still yet to be played!

If you'd like to try the latest version it's not too late to apply in the comments below.

Monday, July 13

A Little Encouragement

I've been quite busy with work again this week, including another long day's trip to our corporate UK head office in Manchester. But regardless I bravely soldiered on and got loads of gaming in. It's a hard job but someone's got to do it and, selfless man that I am, I took one for the team. You guys owe me.

Wednesday's Games Night suffered extreme attrition and ended up just being Ian and me. We played Lost Cities, Firefly (one towards my ten plays goal!) with the Pirates and Bounty Hunters expansion (for the first time) and Carcassonne: The Castle (one towards play every game I own once this year). Firefly was done and dusted in only 65 minutes! That's about half the length of my shortest game to date. Ian and I have both played it a few times so we knew what we were doing and that made a big difference. I liked the new story card from the expansion, but we didn't really play and of the expansion PvP rules, just by being good space citizens rather than any determined effort not to.

Thursday's trip to Manchester was with DJ and Mal, two Games Night regulars who had cried off on Wednesday. As usual, we ended up playing a bunch of board games on the iPad during the journeys, mostly Carcassonne and Hey! That's My Fish! We also played a few games of my Martian Dice app on my phone :-)

Then Saturday I finally made it to Newcastle Gamers for the first time in what feels like centuries. It was a great evening, I only played a couple of games, but it was great to catch up with everyone there and the games were good ones that helped towards my ten plays goal (Homesteaders and Aqua Romana - which is now ticked off the list).

Finally, as I was leaving I spoke briefly to a few Newcastle Playtest regulars. Last time I went to Newcastle Playtest (also some time around 1530, I'm pretty sure Henry VIII was still on the throne), I'd left a copy of Zombology with Dan for him to take to the UK Games Expo playtest event. I've not seen Dan since, so I don't know if he got a chance to try it out, or what the feedback was, but I hope to see him next week. Olly said it felt like he hadn't seen me in ages, and I said that I'd missed the last couple of sessions due to travelling for work. I jokingly said it must have been weird having a session that didn't start with a couple of games of Zombology (it's our staple opening game while we wait for people to arrive). But it did! Dan took it along and they all played it without me! A good sign.

That and another event during the week are starting to restore my confidence. On Tuesday I was out of the office at a networking event where I bumped into a friend of a friend who recognised my name and company name from my badge. She asked if I was the game designer and we chatted about that for a bit. I told her about Zombology (She started it! I didn't pounce on her like a lion that hadn't been fed in months! Well actually I did, but in the sort of genteel way that's acceptable at a work conference). I happened to have the prototype on me (it was in my bag for Wednesday's train trip where it didn't see any action), so I showed it to her and explained the premise. The combination of zombies, wacky science and a £9 price point combined into enough excitement for her to pre-order a copy there and then. Maybe selling 150 won't be so hard after all...