Monday, September 25

Working in the Cloud

Back when I started Reiver Games in 2006 there wasn't a lot of cloud functionality (I had GMail, that was about it). I didn't own a smartphone or a tablet. My bookkeeping was done on paper (in a physical ledger book), all the spreadsheets I had of game manufacturing details, orders, sales tracking, etc. were OpenOffice (it's free!) spreadsheets on my laptop.

As someone who traveled a lot for work it made running the business quite awkward. I would only be able to update things properly at home. Doing my books turned into a weekly, then monthly and then yearly nightmare. I could only respond to emails when sat at a computer with a physical internet connection. It made things harder and less productive.

This time round I'm approaching things differently. I've a smartphone with a decent data plan that I can use in the UK, Europe and the US. So I can check and respond to emails at home, on the move, at lunch or even while travelling abroad.

Clouds by theaucitron on Flickr
Clouds by theaucitron on Flickr

I've made a concious decision to host as much of my Eurydice Games stuff as possible in the cloud. My books are online, so I can update them as soon as I receive an order or incur an expense, keeping them up to date like this removes the horror of the 'my taxes are due. Quick! Let's catch up the months of bookkeeping I've been putting off!'. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my task list is in Trello which I can access from my laptop, from my iPad and my phone. If I think of a cool idea I can just write it down.

I use Evernote to record information about the game ideas I have in flight - so I've got notes, rules, ideas all written down and accessible from all my devices.

I even use the CC (Creative Cloud) version of InDesign and Illustrator for the graphic design of my games, so I can work on them while travelling too.

Having all this data and information available while out of the house, on a trip to the US for work, on the train to Manchester or at lunchtime means I can be more productive and have to keep less stuff in my head. It's a great way to work and I really appreciate the improvement over the first time round.

Monday, September 18

I Need Data!

This time round I want to do a better job than I did with Reiver Games. Reiver Games was actually pretty successful during the first couple of years when I was hand-crafting Border Reivers and first edition of Its Alive! It wasn't until I tried to make the jump to professional publisher that it all went wrong.

There are a large number of reasons why it went wrong, but one of the most egregious was my inefficient use of my time in the professional phase of Reiver Games. To compound matters, I kept very little data on the things I was doing and how well they worked, so it was difficult to determine what was the best thing to be doing anyway.

This time round I'm trying to keep better information so that I can use that to inform decisions, especially around how best to use my limited time. I'm keeping track of what sources lead to Zombology orders, web traffic to my blog and website and twitter analytics. I'm even trying to get very accurate information about how long it takes to make each part of the games too (a set of cards take 21 minutes to cut out and then another 4 minutes to round the corners and pack them in the box!).

I'm not making much use of this data yet, but once I've collected a decent amount of it I can start using it to drive some of my decision making - hopefully leading to higher productivity or better marketing efforts.

In other news, I've started shipping Zombology to my pre-orders. Only three so far, but I've now got a stock of games so I can start working through the list. I'm hoping to make at least twenty copies this month, so hopefully a decent chunk of my pre-ordering customers will get their games soon!

Monday, September 11

Habitual Game Designer

Daniel Pink (author of Drive) sent me to the Farnham Street blog this week and I ended up reading this blog post about Habits vs. Goals. It got me thinking about my approach to running Eurydice Games.

This time round I'm far more organised than I was during my Reiver Games days - I've written a business plan and I've a Trello board with all my tasks in. I set myself deadlines that are aggressive (I hit most of them in July, but missed a lot in August due to work travel and holidays).

What I need to do to be successful is to maximise the impact I get from the very limited amount of time I have to work on this around my day job and my family life. I need to build a set of habits that enable me to get loads done without stressing me out. Making them habits means they just become a natural part of my week rather than something I'm straining to achieve and stressing about.

I've already got habits in place for social media (twitter, BGG and Google+) plus blogging, hopefully these will allow me to raise enough awareness for me to find the 197 customers I need to sell out of Zombology. The next most obvious thing to add is actually crafting the games I'm trying to sell. If I habitually make five games each week I will finish building the print run for Zombology in nine months - i.e. the end of May next year. That would be great.

As part of my approach of continuous improvement I'll be reviewing my achievements each month and I can adjust my habits accordingly.

Monday, September 4

Small Print Runs are Liberating

Most people designing and self-publishing board games are turning to Kickstarter to share them with the world. There are a lot of advantages to this (not least getting a good idea of the market size and not having to front the all of the production costs yourself), but I've chosen a different route. I've mentioned before why I don't like Kickstarter (see here, here and here).

But there are distinct advantages to the opposite approach too:
  • Knowing what you're getting into up front
  • Personal connection with your customers
  • Personal connection with the games
  • Freedom to do the unusual

Knowing what what you're getting into up front

I've not done a Kickstarter and I've only backed two, but reading Brandon the Game Dev, you need to have art ready to go before you start your Kickstarter. So unless you are or you know really well, an artist you're already a few thousand pounds out of pocket before you start. Then, with pledges and stretch goals you don't really know what you're getting into until the day the campaign finishes, when you have hundreds or thousands of people out of pocket awaiting you to deliver on your promises. That's stress I could do without.

I knew before I spent any money that I was risking £785 of my own money on Zombology. No more, no less. I've spent that £785 and now I'm just waiting to see how much of it I can recoup/will I make a profit to invest in my next game. 80 odd orders and I break even, 100 odd and I fund the other things like website costs and other game development costs. All 200 and I make a small profit to reinvest in my next game.

Because I've funded it myself there's no-one out of pocket but me, I'm not taking money from my customers until I have their games ready to ship, so it's no risk for them, which eases the pressure a bit, seeing as I'm not sitting on a pile of other people's money with obligations to deliver.

Personal connection to the customers

Lots of the pre-orders I've received so far are from people who bought games from Reiver Games. They are people who've supported my games designing and publishing over the last thirteen years. I've never met many of them (they are worldwide), but I feel like we have a connection and I hugely value their support.

Selling hand-crafted games direct lets you form a bond with the customer in a way that selling to distributors who sell to shops who sell to customers really doesn't. Plus, hand-crafting the games lets you personalise them a bit too - with signed and numbered copies each of which can have a personalised message inside.

Personal connection to the games

As awesome as it is to walk down the aisle of a dusty warehouse surveying the pallets on which your games are piled, it's not the same as making the game yourself. Personally cutting the box net, folding it, taping it and then applying the label. Folding the rules sheet and the individually cutting out each card and then rounding their corners gives you a close bond to each and every copy. Time is money. Doubly so when you have a busy job and a young family. That I've devoted 45 minutes to the construction of each and every copy makes them more valuable to me and hopefully to you.
Zombology before I start crafting it

Freedom to do the unusual

I've got 200 copies of Zombology to sell, probably 195 after review copies and a copy for myself. Of the 7.4 billion people in the world I need to find only 195 that are willing to part with a tenner for my game. In that position, I can afford to make a quirky game that appeals to a niche within the strategy gaming niche market. If you're kickstarting a game it needs to appeal to as many people as possible to increase its chance of funding. Glorious art, loads of minis, popular mechanics. I can afford to try something a little more off the beaten track (e.g. semi-cooperative) and do the art myself (with crowd-sourced art direction!).

It's liberating doing small print runs and now I've started making the games I'm really appreciating the route I've taken once again.

Monday, August 28

Learning From My Mistakes

One of the advantages of starting a second board game publishing company is that you have previous experience and in particular, lots of previous mistakes from which you can learn (if you didn't you still be running the first one!).

I had a lot of successes with Reiver Games and I'm proud of what I achieved, but the errors outweighed the successes over time and they came to define the company and eventually kill it. According to Carol Dweck, how you respond to failures is a key part of your mindset - some people treat failures as judgements on their abilities, others as lessons from which they can learn. I like to think I'm in the second camp, but you never know.

So what went wrong with Reiver Games? It was all going well while I ran the company as a hobby, hand-making games, it wasn't until I made the leap to professional publisher that things started to come off the rails. I can think of five major mistakes that I really don't want to repeat:


  1. Jumped to professional too soon
  2. Artwork is critical to retail success
  3. Carpe Astra rushed out
  4. Taking a bank loan
  5. Losing momentum/motivation

Jumped to professional too soon

When my Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis led to my life insurance paying out I had a choice to make, keep working in full-time employment, running Reiver Games as a hobby in my spare time or invest heavily in Reiver Games and go pro. I chose the latter, far too soon. I had maybe ten true fans, and a whole heap of people who had heard of Reiver Games - enough to be able to sell 300 hand-made games within a year, but not enough to sell 3,000 games through retail channels. I should have waited until I had more experience and a better market presence. This time round I have no plans to go pro - I've a family to support now, I can't afford to go without a salary or take a big pay cut.

Artwork is critical to retail success

When you're making games by hand and selling them at conventions and games clubs you've a lot on your side - you're selling the games, and people like to support the little guy or the designer of a game who's excitement about their project is so palpable. When you're selling through retail channels no-one is selling your game. The store will stock it (if you're lucky!), but it will just sit on the shelf amongst hundreds or thousands of others - the staff won't know how to play and won't be pushing your game over any other game. So your game has to sell itself, whether through hype, word of mouth or shelf presence. A beautiful box will really help here, as it will draw people in to learn more. With both It's Alive! and Carpe Astra I got a friend to do the art, and he did me a great deal, so it was very cheap. But he didn't have board game art experience. I loved the art of It's Alive!, but the box was weak, so the second edition had a new box, which was weak in a different way. The art for Carpe Astra was also weak - especially the box. But when it's a mate doing it dead cheap it's very hard to ask him to redo it, especially when you can't clearly articulate what's wrong with it. This time round I'm not aiming at retail, so I can side-step a lot of this, and I'll be mostly selling the game face-to-face with people who have played it, which makes the box art less critical to its success.

Carpe Astra rushed out

If you want to make a living selling board games through retail channels you need to sell a lot of games. Let's say you want to earn £30K. The usual pricing for retail is that you sell to distributors at 40% of retail and aim to get it manufactured at 20% of retail. So your profit is 20% of retail (if you sell them all!). It's Alive! retailed at £15, so my profit should have been £3 per copy (I overspent, it was nearer £1.50). If It's Alive! was the only game I made I would need to sell 10,000 of them every year. That's excluding money for warehousing, attending conventions and advertising. One way to make things easier is have multiple games, that way you can do several smaller runs, and it makes it easier for shops or distributors to place an order with you. To try to get to this point I rushed Carpe Astra out. It had some nice ideas, but it wasn't ready for prime time, and as a result I was left with a lot of games that I couldn't shift. I should have had the balls to delay its release until I though it was ready, rather than rush to be a 'multi-game' publisher. This time round I'm not trying to go pro, so I'm very happy to only have one game on the books at a time, or even none if I've not got the next one ready to go.

Taking a bank loan

A couple of things went wrong with the launch of Carpe Astra, as well as rushing the game out before it was ready, I'd hit several delays when trying to get It's Alive! to market. I'd taken the £4,250 I'd made on the hand-made games and invested £12K of life insurance to fund the £13,500 cost of It's Alive! It's Alive! was months late, so when I wanted to launch Carpe Astra (too early!) I'd not recouped enough of the It's Alive! investment to fund the £10K cost of getting Carpe Astra manufactured. I could have waited, building up funds and giving myself more time to improve the game, but instead I went to the bank and got a loan. For the next three years I would be paying the bank £330 a month. In a good month I'd bring in a lot more than than, but in a bad one I'd bring in a lot less. So my cash on hand slowly dwindled and eventually I ran out. This time round I'm going to be very careful about recurring monthly expenses. At the moment it's just the bank account fees, that don't start for 18 months...

Losing motivation/momentum

It's easy to be excited and motivated when everything is going well, less so when sales are slowly tricking in and your bank loan and warehousing costs are draining your bank account before your very eyes. How you perform under those circumstances says a lot about your character and your likelihood of success. I'm sad to say that I lost faith and gave up - I was spending my days largely watching television on one, then two, then six hour 'lunch breaks', supposedly researching game ideas based on my favourite TV shows. I was pretty pathetic and had I manned up and hustled at that point it might have still been possible to turn things around. I didn't and I paid the price. Reiver Games went under. This time round I hope I'm a better man, I've seen what that leads to and know the warning signs to watch out for. The reduced pressure from not trying to make it a salary paying job will also make it less demoralising if things don't go to plan.

I really don't want to make same mistakes again. This time round I'm taking some things from my day job to help me keep on top of things. I'm adopting a process of continuous improvement and taking regular checkpoints when I ask myself what's going well, badly and what I should start doing that I'm currently not. This step back will hopefully let me spot problems before they become too entrenched and fix them, leading to more success than last time...

Monday, August 21

It's Alive!

Nope, I'm not talking about a reprint of the game I published back in 2007 (and again in 2008), but instead Eurydice Games, my second board games publishing company.


Over the last couple of weeks I've been doing the various things I need to do to make it a reality (getting a bank account, telling HMRC, creating a website and then buying a domain name and some web hosting and setting up a PayPal account ready for accepting web payments from the customers I hope will flock to buy Zombology from me :-)

This has been a curtailed week, I didn't get home until Monday, from a work trip to Massachusetts last week that was book-ended by stays with my parents down in Bristol. Tuesday I was in Manchester for work and then Wednesday I was in Sheffield for my biannual MS check up as part of the clinical trial on which I'm registered. Thursday was my only day in the office because I'd taken Friday off to get ready for a family holiday to The Netherlands which started on Saturday (I wrote this blog post last week and then automatically posted it during my holiday).

The other exciting thing about this week is that I collected the printed materials for Zombology from the printers on Friday. I've now got everything I need to hand-craft 200 copies of Zombology. The first order of business when I return from the holiday is to start making and shipping the pre-orders, I don't want to start accepting money until I have the games ready to ship, so making and shipping the pre-orders is a necessary step to complete before I can put the games up for general sale on my website, BGG and potentially other marketplaces.

Monday, August 14

Jet Lag Hustle

I've spent the last five days in Massachusetts for work - it's somewhere I visit a few times a year as our corporate headquarters is based there. Despite being a fairly frequent traveller I'm pretty bad at it and I suffer from jet lag every time. But being an optimist I view it as an opportunity, rather than a hindrance.

While in the US I woke around 4am every day (except the last one when I was finally on US time, just in time for my return to Bristol). I used the jet lag hours of 4-7am to work on Eurydice Games, cracking on with a bunch of tasks that have been sat in my todo pile for quite a while now.

I had hoped to be able to do a few things that required spending money, but the business bank account wasn't opened until I got to the US and my bank card was delivered to my house while I was away, so I'm not able to spend any money until I return home on Monday.

That didn't stop me making progress though. I've done a load of work on the website (nearly finished!) and also tweaked the Zombology artwork, ordered another proof with the new art and made a laser cutting file for my new dexterity game idea.

Kobold Guide to Board Game Design

In addition, I've written a couple of blog posts and finished reading the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design, which is excellent - I highly recommend it. It's a series of essays written by really experienced game designers, developers and editors providing really sound advice from their years of experience. Several of the essays made me think about games design in a different way, so it was a very worthwhile read.

This week I've got a lot of train travel (more opportunities to make progress!) and then we go on a family holiday to The Netherlands at the end of the week during which I'll be focusing on my family and will make next to no progress on anything. Hopefully I'll get a few things done before I go!