This is the first in an occasional series about things that look very clear with hindsight but which were definite mistakes and/or blindspots when I started designing games. Can you spot yourself doing any of these? Let me know in the comments how you’ve dealt with these issues.

Today - trying to be a designer-producer-manufacturer-illustrator-graphic designer-distributor-marketer-influencer-customs official. It’s fair to say when I started out as a game designer about five years ago, I didn’t really know what that was, and I certainly didn’t know what it wasn’t. Like most people, I got into game design because I played games, and I had an idea for a game of my own. Not just any game, oh no, this was the best game ever and I was certain that no-one had ever thought of anything like this before. Just like yours.

Having spent a bit of time making prototypes, testing and tweaking the game, I thought it’d be fun to try and make it into something real. Again, probably like most people, I had absolutely no idea what was involved. But the great thing about getting into game design today (and even five years ago) is that there are so many resources available, so many people that are prepared and eager to share what they know, and it’s so easy to get the answers to your questions – as long as you’re not afraid to ask and not afraid to share what you’re working on, as well as your own experiences.

It's definitely possible to self-publish a game – perhaps most obviously through a crowdfunding site like Kickstarter, but even as a start-up, if you have some funds and some experience in the world of games. I initially tried to do this, using a small amount of savings to make a small print run of games, and tried to sell those on my own website, through Amazon and at a couple of places in person. I think four or five actual strangers paid actual money for a copy (and maybe one day those rare original copies will be worth a fortune on eBay!) Most of the rest are in my attic and I use them as demo/prototype copies. Or doorstops, Or to build a fort. But it’d definitely possible to go down this route if you have the right knowledge and contacts. It’s fair to say I had neither of these when I started.

What I didn’t realise was how many steps and roles are involved in getting from a game design to an actual game. So in my enthusiasm to turn my idea into something real, I tried to be an illustrator, a graphic designer, a marketer, a distributor, a publisher and more – as well as learning how to set up and run a (very small) company. I learned a lot, but the biggest lesson was that I really shouldn’t be trying to do all this myself. To succeed, you have to collaborate, and you have to know when to bring in people with better skills than yours. If that sounds obvious then well done, you're well ahead of where I started!

Where have I ended up now? Well my primary driver is coming up with games – I know I can rely on my brain to come up with new ideas on a regular basis and I can ‘engineer’ that process too (more on that in a future blog). I can’t draw. I’ve learned enough graphic design to be able to do basic card layouts and manipulate images that someone else has professionally produced. I know enough about production and shipping to have confidence in running a Kickstarter campaign but I wouldn’t dream of trying to do the shipping or manufacturing myself. You can certainly save money by getting all your games shipped to your home and then posting them individually to backers/customers, but is that really a good use of your time? I know I’m no good at advertising, marketing or publicity, and there are companies that can do this fantastically well (you can pay as much or as little as you want for this, but it tends to be commensurate with the number of views/conversions you get). So, for the large part, I’m sticking to designing the game, but making sure I understand the ecosystem of roles that can make my designs into something real.

So what’s the verdict and what does this mean for you? This is about understanding three things:

- what you can already do well;

- what you can learn;

- and what is really best left to the experts.

These three categories can change over time of course, as you gain more skills and experience, and get a better feel for how you like to spend your time (and money). Always try to learn more, but recognise when you’re better off paying for a professional. It’s great to do the research into how things work so you can see ‘under the bonnet’ and understand the complete end-to-end process of games, but then it pays to consciously decide what you’ll do yourself and what you’ll pass on to others. The right balance for you will depend on your existing skills, your willingness to learn new skills, and how much time and money you have (if you have no time and a lot of money it obviously makes sense to pay professionals for their skills; if you’re ‘short on money but long on time’ then it might pay to spend time learning new skills yourself. But realistically, you may find that shipping, logistics, marketing analysis, manufacturing, distribution and accounting are best left to those who do this for a living!

In all of these, it’s really worth understanding the difference between entry level skills and top-end professionals, and where you are on that spectrum. If you are already an illustrator then that gives you a great advantage, and there’s a lot of notable current examples of illustrators that have started (successfully) designing their own games – Ryan Laukat, Judson Cowan, Edmund McMillen, Mal Rempen and more. Similarly, if you already have a huge following online you can convert that into game design success (if you can come up with a great game or two). But if your start point is game design itself, you’re going to need some help – and that’s okay. Just remember that most game designers have started from that position, and there’s a great community of people out there that’ll be really happy to share their knowledge. Share what you’ve got (without fear – more on that in a future blog) and you’ll get ten times as much back.

Architects don’t build buildings. Labourers don’t design them. Neither of them try to be an estate agent, an interior designer, a plasterer or a decorator. You wouldn’t ask your bartender to cook you a meal, and your local window cleaner probably can’t make glass. Why should game design be any different? :-)

I'm re-posting this blog from a couple of years ago, from a series I published on BoardGameGeek's Game Design forum - partly because I just realised I never published it on this site, but also as a trailer for an upcoming series of blogs about failure (and why it matters). Read it and weep...

I'd intended for the fifth and last posting in this series to be a bit of a summary; kind of "right, if I only need to know about 12 things when I'm doing my KS, what should they be?" So please read the following out loud, in the style of Baz Luhrmann doing 'Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)' (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTJ7AzBIJoI).


Game Designers of the class of 2020:


1. Be clear what your game is, and what it is not. If your game is a 15-minute family filler, own that and embrace it. If it's a sprawling, 27-hour-to-play epic, embrace that too. Don't apologise for your game genre and don't pretend to bee Gloomhaven, it will only make you look like Overturn.


2. Read everything that James Mathe and Jamey Stegmaier have said. By all means disagree with some of it, but you must, must read it, and read it again. It's time well spent, and these good people have spent hundreds of hours condensing down their enormous experience. They know of what they speak.


3. Spend money on art and graphic design, both for your game and for the campaign page. I backed Terrors of London without even reading the gameplay section, because the art nearly made me cry it's so good. Make people cry with your art. Support an up and coming artist. They win, you win. A good illustrator can reach inside your head and turn your half-formed ideas into beautiful, atmospheric art, and show it to the world. That alone is worth a few hundred dollars of your money.


4. Get reviews. Real ones. If they express reservations, please link them anyway. Pay for a KS preview if you must, if it helps people understand how to play your game. Know that the only purpose of any review or preview content is to help people make an informed decision. Do not dupe people - some people will love your game, some will hate it. Some people buy any old rubbish. Many more won't care. Your job is not to browbeat people into sharing your view, it's to make sure no-one misses out through lack of awareness.


5. Make a video. Show yourself in it, either in person, or show your personality through another medium. Kickstarter backers are backing a part of you, so let them see what they're backing. Cringe, wince, but keep the camera rolling. If people don't buy into you, that's their choice, but don't have them buy into something that you're not. If you're not a natural TV presenter, then just talk, or script an animation. But you've got this far - you created something and you have something to say, just find the right way to say it.


6. Make your game available. Publish the rulebook, make print & play files available if that's possible, make it available to play online (through Tabletopia or Steam) if that's possible. You want people to spend their hard-earned money on your creation - help them to understand what they'd be investing in.


7. Talk to your backers. Listen to your backers. Respond to every one of your backers, if you can - these are all real people who have volunteered to spend real money on the thing you're proposing to create. Don't be defensive. You want people to ask questions - they might just spot something you haven't. Sometimes people will have radical ideas as to how you can improve - listen, don't judge, and don't react immediately. Striking the right balance between following your convictions and the noise of the (sometimes well-informed) crowd can be hard. If you manage to strike this balance, please DM me and tell me how.


8. Plan for the future. By which I mean, think about what you'll do if your campaign fails, or if it wildly overfunds. Have stretch goals and extras ready to go, just in case. Write half of your campaign updates ahead of time, that show new and interesting aspects of your game. Make up the other half as you go, listening to what your community is saying at the time.


9. Make sure the world knows about your game beforehand - get out there in persona and online and show your game to real people. Wonderful games have failed with a whimper because no-one knew they were there. Terrible games have funded many times over because thousands of deluded fans were waiting with a dream, a credit card and a Facebook account. Sometimes charlatans and morons make a fortune through marketing a terrible product. Sometimes half-baked ideas get lucky. Sometimes highly skilled marketers generate huge success while making it look like they didn't know what they were doing. Sometimes, hard-working, talented designers get the success they have deserved for so long. You never quite know. Don't judge your game against theirs, you will go mad - but maybe there's something you can learn from their campaign?


10. Spend as much as you can afford to make your campaign as professional and as clear as it can be, but don't break the bank.

Spend time meticulously understanding your budget, your logistics network, your shipping costs. Make sure you know how you're going to fulfil to that gaming group in South Korea or Iceland that suddenly wants eight copies of your game. Subsidise shipping as far as you're able but again, don't break the bank. Be honest about your costs on both sides - is it a fair price to your backers, and is it a fair cost to you?


11. Whatever happens, keep it all in perspective. It's a board game. It might be your dream, your labour of love, your life's work, and you should give it 100%, but it's a game. Don't remortgage your house, alienate your family, disenfranchise your friends, ruin someone's day or damage the other aspects of your life in your zeal to make this happen. Take people with you, but recognise that this might not be the biggest thing in their life right now. Most people want you to succeed. Help them to help you.


12. Go for it. Although every post in this series has contained the word "failed", let me be clear - this has been an exhilarating, terrifying, challenging, surprising ride, and (I hope) this is just the beginning. I've learnt a huge amount, and I still consider myself an absolute novice. Go on this journey. You'll love it. It'll scare the crap out of you, but you'll love it. And remember that just by being on this very forum, you're part of a community of millions of people who share your passion. You're not alone. However much snark, sarcasm, perceived wisdom and cynicism you may encounter, it's a great time to be a gamer, and a game designer.


I wish you every success - good luck!

Although I’ve been designing games for about five years, I’ve only very recently started having a go at design contests. These are much more common than I realised – at any given time there might be up to ten of these happening at once, inviting people to design different kinds of board and card games to various specifications (for example, Print & Play, 18-cards, Roll & Write). Some are run by companies with the prospect of a possible publishing deal for a winner; others have cash prizes; still others are run by the BoardGameGeek community (and other communities), by other designers, just for the fun of designing. Taking part in these has given me a whole new insight into designing. Here’s ten reasons why I love game design contests.

1. Trying new formats for games. I would never have tried to design a roll & write, or a 9-card game, if I hadn’t seen a contest in that particular format. And, as I’d discussed in my previous blog, trying a new game format is a great way to improve your skills and broaden your perspective.

2. Deadlines and focus. Unless you do this for a living, you won’t usually be designing to anything other than a self-imposed deadline. And I’m much more likely to get something done if I know it’s got to be done by a particular time (which is why I end up wrapping all the presents on Christmas Eve). So it’s great to know that you have, say, three weeks to come up with a working, tested, presentable design - it really focusses your mind.

3. Inspiration. Seeing what other designers can do with the brief you’ve all been given is a wonder to behold. Invariably you’ll see some incredible results and end up thinking ‘how on earth did they come up with that?’

4. Competition. Now I don’t actually mean here ‘trying to win’, which makes this quite hard to explain. Given the wealth of talent, effort and skill out there, I wouldn’t ever anticipate entering one of these competitions expecting to win. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love the fact of competition. For me, it’s a bit like running – I like to run, and now and again I do races (10k, half marathon etc). I don’t expect to finish in the first hundred, much less win. I won’t get a personal best in the distance – those were all for years gone by. But the buzz I get from standing on the start line, surrounded by hundreds of other people, all of whom have decided this is a good thing to do, is very similar to the excitement I now get from a design contest.

5. Forcing your hand – making you to share your ideas, including at an earlier stage than you might have been comfortable with. I think many designers are uncomfortable doing this, especially if it’s your first design or an early design, but it’s a great habit to get into, and it leads to…

6. Community – It’s really fun, and useful, to be able to chat about designs in a situation where you’re all in the same boat. How have you each interpreted the rules, how have you tried make the most imaginative use of the restrictions imposed upon you, and what weird and wonderful themes

7. Feedback - getting feedback and giving feedback on yours and others’ designs, usually from people that have a lot more experience than you at doing this, and who have probably played a lot more games than you as well (at least, that’s how it’s been for me). That doesn’t have to mean people do a hatchet job on your game, it can be really constructive advice, and loads of tips on how to make your games even better.

8. Seeing how other people do Graphic Design. This is definitely an area that I thought I could do, until I saw other people doing it well. Even if you don’t plan on doing your own graphic design when it comes to publishing, it’s another great way to pick up tips on how people do it well, which can hugely improve your prototypes in future.

9. Making new ideas happen. By which I mean, contests provide a forcing function to actually come up with new ideas, in a controlled way, rather than just waiting/hoping that they’ll pop into your head. The latter is how it tends to work for me, but the downside to that is that you only get the ideas that correspond with what you see, hear and learn on a daily basis, and there’s a real danger you’ll gravitate towards what you know or what you’re comfortable with. A contest gives you an exam question that you might not have chosen or thought of, but which might end up producing some of your best ideas yet.

10. Tough love - Validation (or destruction) of what you thought was a great idea, when you realise (rightly or wrongly) that everyone else’s entry is just so much better than yours. Sometimes it can work the other way round, and people really like the idea that you were luke-warm about, but either way, it’s a whole new set of perspectives on your designs.

Did I mention the fun? I guess that’s eleven. If you like the sound of this and want to get involved, here’s some places you can do it:

  • Board Game Geek has a Design Contests forum here

  • The Board Game Design Lab has a weekly update on design contests from around the community

  • Button Shy Games have a quarterly themed 18-card game design contest. There’s a couple of days left to enter the current one – design a worker placement game with 18 cards and nothing else!

And finally, don’t forget to check out the websites or Twitter feeds of your favourite game publishers, where you’ll often find contests, some of which might even have a publishing deal at the end of them. Good luck!

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