Monday, March 19

Sizing a Hand-Crafted Print Run

FlickFleet is coming along nicely so one of the many things I'm working on at the moment is pricing and sizing the print run.

As with Zombology, I'm intending to do a small, limited edition run first where I make the boxes by hand and cut out the ship dashboards by hand (though I'll be buying in the wooden pieces and laser cutting the acrylic ships).

So how big a print run should I do? In a perfect world I'd like to do a print run that I can comfortably hand-craft and sell through within a year. The smaller the print run, the more confident I am of both those things. At the same time, the bigger the print run, the better the economies of scale, so the cheaper each copy is to make and the cheaper I can price them (which will hopefully make them easier to sell). Although, of course the initial outlay is higher.

FlickFleet up close

The other thing to consider is the number of pre-orders. For a professional run or a Kickstarter, the more of these the better. For a small hand-made run it's not that simple. Since it takes me time (at this point I'm estimating 1-1.5 hours) to make each copy, and I'm doing this in my evenings after the kids go to bed, I actually don't want too many - it'll just put me under a lot of pressure to get them done and delay building up stock and promoting the game. For Zombology I had 20 pre-orders (on top of the 30 copy run I'd already sold out of to friends and family), which was 10% of the print run and about 15 hours of crafting to make. The Baby was only 3 months old at that point, so our sleep was dreadful (it's still pretty bad!), so that was a lot of evenings and took about a month to complete. Ideally I'd have about 20-25% of the print run spoken for up front, which will still mean a chunk of evenings and probably a calendar month of construction.

The biggest factor for FlickFleet's cost though is the laser cutting, for which there isn't much in the way of economies of scale (you're paying for cutting time which scales linearly with number of copies). One of the options I'm exploring is buying a laser cutter. They are very expensive, but it would save me a lot of cost per game and I would be able to amortize it over the games (and potentially other projects).

At the moment it looks like I could do it for £30 if I do the laser cutting myself and £40 if I outsource the laser cutting. That £10 is a big deal, £40 is a lot to ask for for a hand-made game.

I'm toying with either a 200 (Zombology-sized) or 300 (It's Alive! First Edition-sized) print run. Numbers of pre-orders is probably what I'll
use to make the decision on run size, and they are coming in surprisingly quickly at the moment, considering the fact I've not announced it or even worked out the price!

Hopefully I'll be ready to decide and make an announcement shortly - keep your eyes peeled!

Monday, March 12

A lesson in Doing it Right

I noticed in passing Jamey Stegmaier's 2017 Stonemaier Games Stakeholder Report on twitter this week. It's an incredible read. Especially when you compare it to his inspiration, the Steve Jackson Games equivalent. And my earlier admission of failure.

What made it especially interesting to me was comparing it with my first attempt at running a publisher, Reiver Games, and my current self-publishing project Eurydice Games.

Jamey has been fantastically successful. Fantastically. Fair play to him, he's exceptionally good at what he does. Stonemaier have one full-time employee (Jamey) and made $7.1 million in 2017. That's more than double what they made in 2016. Plus, importantly they were profitable.

Their first game (Viticulture) was published just four years earlier. $0 - $7.1 million in turnover in four years. Now that's impressive. For comparison, Reiver Games ran for 5 years, its best turnover was around £22,000 and I never took a salary from it. Clearly Jamey does this way, way better than me.

Reiver Games was founded in 2006 and was just hand-crafted runs until mid-2008. I made the jump to 'professional' publisher then, just before the stock market crash in September 2008 when lots of people's spare cash dried up. I invested a small amount of my own money in it at the beginning, then a fairly large amount of my life insurance payout and then took out a loan. Servicing that loan killed Reiver Games. Stonemaier by comparison have no debt.

Now probably the biggest difference between us is Kickstarter. Kickstarter was founded in 2009 and Jamey has initially released most of his games through it, with great success. Pretty much everyone who is new to publishing (and quite a few old hands) now launch new games through Kickstarter, but it wasn't available in the UK until after Reiver Games had shut down and I'm still uncomfortable with it now. Which probably explains why I'm hand-crafting small print runs again and Jamey is turning over millions of dollars.

In addition to the fantastic success Jamey has deservedly raked in, there's several things in that report that staggered me.

Jamey has been that successful making one new game a year, plus a couple of expansions. When I was running Reiver Games I was convinced the only way to be successful was to have a lot of games on your books like Z-Man or Rio Grande. That was always my aim: get to the point where I had several games coming out a year. Hopefully one of them would be a smash hit, but if not, half a dozen less successful games meant that you could more easily sell to distributors and shops and meant that brand awareness would build as people saw your logo in more and more places. But even in these days, when there are thousands of new games appearing on Kickstarter, Jamey has been hugely successful with one new game a year. That goes to show the quality of the games he's producing, and the fan-base he's built.

The print runs show just how successful he's been. At the time of Reiver Games people talked about 5,000-10,000 copy runs being for very good games, with maybe up to 50-70,000 if the game won Spiel des Jahres or something similar. My 'professional' Reiver Games print runs were 3,000, 2,000 and then 3,000 (for It's Alive!, Carpe Astra and Sumeria respectively). Nowadays I'm hoping that I can find 200 people interested in Zombology (which admittedly is a niche, within a niche, within a niche!). Stonemaier have five games in circulation with between 31,000 and 150,000 copies in the wild. Those are epic print runs, and with such large runs come some huge economies of scale - something I never successfully achieved.

Even with those however, Jamey admits that his margins aren't where he wants them. He's aiming for manufacturing costs to be 14-20% of retail. He's not quite there yet. During my Reiver Games days I was aiming for 20%, but only managed it once. It was nearly 30% for It's Alive!, about 25% for Carpe Astra and finally 20% for Sumeria, for which I did a larger run (so some economies of scale) and bumped up the price to £25. Sadly, with my obsession for small boxes all that meant was my game was the only £25 game on the small box shelf, the rest were all £18-22. Looking really expensive by comparison didn't help me since the vast majority of my sales were through shops and distributors. Now that I'm making games by hand and selling directly I don't need to worry about shops and distributors getting their cuts, so I'm aiming for 50% (it's just under 40% for Zombology and due to the laser cutting and perspex it'll probably be over 60% for FlickFleet :-( ).

The other thing that stood out was the size of Jamey's audience. He's got 33,000 people on his mailing list (I've started from scratch again, so I've only got 60!), 9,000 twitter followers (to my 2,250) and is active on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube where I don't even have accounts. He's clearly doing a lot of things right.

For those of you coming here for advice on getting into game (self-)publishing, you should be going to Jamey. Come here for the cautionary tale instead!

Monday, March 5

A Busy Week

It's been a very busy week this week. I've shipped the first two blind playtesting copies of FlickFleet, made my first batch of Zombology in ages (I've been focussing on FlickFleet for the last couple of months), had a UK Games Expo seminar accepted and then spent the weekend with Paul (my FlickFleet co-designer) doing some gaming, some playtesting and attending Beyond Monopoly, the club in York, for the first time in probably nine years. Finally, I found out that FlickFleet is not a finalist in the Cardboard Edison Award - despite really positive feedback from the judges.

The blind playtesting is a crucial step in the development of a game. You're sending a copy of the game, complete with rulebook to strangers for their feedback. They will have to learn the game from the rulebook, as if they'd bought it in a shop and then play it - rightly or wrongly based on their reading of your rulebook. You will then get feedback on the quality of the rulebook, what wasn't clear or was missing and their opinions of the game. From strangers. Who unlike the people you will have mostly been testing with, are not your friends and are less inclined to go easy on you to protect your feelings. It's an invaluable opportunity to find the weak spots in your rulebook (writing rules well is very hard, and invariably you will have missing things or made statements that can be interpreted in different ways), and to get a better idea how a random punter would experience and feel about your game - it's also a great opportunity to get a better idea of what the market reception of your game might be.
A blind playtest copy ready to go in the post

Zombology has suffered a bit over the last couple of months. I'd built up a decent stock in December, and while I intended to keep cranking out copies in January and February, sales were not fast enough to demand it (though on track!) and I spent what little time I had (The Baby has been sleeping terribly since Christmas, so I've been going to bed early and Eurydice time is between kids' bedtime and mine, a time period that has been heavily squeezed!) on FlickFleet instead. In January I was trying to get a Cardboard Edison Award submission done (more on that later) and then this month it's been upgrading my copy, getting a copy to Paul and then working on the blind playtesting copies. With a trip to Beyond Monopoly last weekend though I needed to boost my slowly diminishing stock a bit - I'd rather take far more than I need than have fewer than I could have sold. I got six boxes and three games made during the week, which meant I had 15 copies to take with me to Beyond Monopoly.

On Monday I also heard that the seminar idea I had pitched to the UK Games Expo in Birmingham in June (me hand-crafting a copy of Zombology live in front of an audience while talking about my experiences running Reiver and Eurydice Games and the many tips and tricks I've picked up over 16 years of hand-crafting games). It's going to be 1-2pm on Sunday 3rd June and spaces are limited to 50 people, so if you're interested I'd get there early!

Friday evening we braved the snow and drove down to York to see Paul and his family again. I was too tired in the evenings for our usual playtesting and gaming (baby-related sleep deprivation again!), but Paul and I made it along to Beyond Monopoly on Saturday afternoon - the big games club in York I used to attend when I lived there. While there I spent the afternoon demoing Zombology and playtesting FlickFleet and I sold two copies of Zombology :-) It was also great to catch up with some old gaming buddies. There was a lot of interest in FlickFleet too - several people signed up to my mailing list to be kept in the loop.

The week ended with the news that FlickFleet had not made the cut for the Cardboard Edison Awards finalists. From a field of 192 the judges had to pick approximately fifteen based on a video introduction, a rulebook and a brief overview. My video (done the night before submission) was spectacularly uninspiring - I sounded terribly dull and not at all excited about my game, and the rulebook was pretty poor too - it was also last minute, and had no examples and not enough diagrams. I could really have done with getting the new rulebook (finished last week) done in time for the submission at the end of January.

This week I'm hoping to make it to Newcastle Playtest on Tuesday to show off the latest FlickFleet changes and get peoples' opinions on them.

Monday, February 26

Secret Sauce

The title sounds much raunchier than this blog post actually is!

I was asked on Friday evening on twitter if I could share some of my ‘Hand-crafting secret sauce’ by a fellow game designer and Zombology customer. His question was specifically around three things: tools, costs and time.

The tools question is pretty easy to answer as I did a post on this years ago, but I’m still using the same tools. The corner rounding tool has halved in price since I bought it in 2006, so it’s not quite so expensive any more.

In terms of costs, Zombology is pretty straightforward. Shipping is the cost of the padded envelope (I bought them in bulk so they were only 30p each) plus Royal Mail 1st class postage to the UK (£3.40) or standard parcel elsewhere (£4.10 to Europe, £5.65 to Australia and New Zealand or £5.15 to everywhere else). For those copies I sell via my website PayPal fees vary between 67p and just over a pound.

The cost of manufacture for Zombology comes down to printing alone. I bought box card (750 micron thick greyboard), box labels, rules sheet and card sheets from a local digital printer. Printing is one of those things where there are real economies of scale. The first copy is really expensive, but the more you do the cheaper it gets. I wanted to sell Zombology (which is 108 cards and a rules sheet in a two deck card box like No Thanks! or 6 Nimmt! comes in) for £10, which is more or less the retail price of a game that size in the UK. I also wanted to do it at a profit so that I had some money to pay for advertising, a website, trips to conventions, making prototypes of new games and to grow the company so I can make bigger print runs or more complex games in future.

When I was pricing it up the cost for 100 copies was £585, so £5.85 per game. If I sold all 100 copies at full price (I’ve already given away four for reviews, my copy, etc. so that's not going to happen!) then I could make at most £415 minus PayPal fees. Which doesn’t leave a lot for all the other things I’ve mentioned above.

150 copies was £630 (£4.20 per copy) with an absolute maximum profit of £870, and 200 was £790 (£3.95 per copy minus PayPal fees) with a maximum profit of £1,210. Could I sell 200 copies? That’s the £790 question. Sales are on track at the moment, but without any marketing budget or any real marketing skills it’s hard work, especially with the constant stream of amazing looking Kickstarters with their stretch goals and hundreds of minis. We will have to wait and see.

I could have made the game much cheaper than that, but I made a couple of decisions which push up the costs and the quality. It's squeezing my margins and forcing me to do larger runs, but it's a decision I still stand by. I craft games to a very high standard. I do it in my spare time around a young family, after the girls go to bed. And seeing as I’m usually up around 5am, I don’t go to bed late myself, so time is very limited.

Decision one was to use vinyl stickers for the box labels. When I did Border Reivers and It’s Alive! I printed the box labels on paper and then hand glued them onto the box blanks using watered down PVA glue. It took ages and was really awkward. With less time available I’m all about saving time and effort where possible. The vinyl stickers are very expensive, but they are very quick and easy to stick on.

Decision two was to keep laminating the cards and box labels. The printer applies a very thin coat of plastic over the artwork and then melts it into the paper. It makes the cards and box more hardwearing, slightly water resistant and it feels really nice in your hands. Again it’s totally worth it. I want people to be amazed that I’ve made the games by hand, not think they look and feel shoddy.
A Zombology before I start crafting

The final question was about time. I make the games in batches of six (the number of boxes I get out of a single sheet of SRA2 greyboard. Each batch takes about four hours (it was 4.5, but I’ve honed it over the twelve batches I’ve made so far), so it’s about 40 mins per game. The boxes take about 15 minutes each including cutting out, folding, taping, cutting out the labels and then labelling. Folding the rules is about 2 minutes and then cutting out all 108 cards takes 20 mins. Rounding all the corners using the aforementioned tool takes the final three minutes!

I submitted a seminar idea for the UK Games Expo this year where I hand-craft a game in front of a live audience, explaining how and why I’m doing what I’m doing, along with sharing some tips and tricks on what I’ve found works and what doesn’t. I should find out today whether or not I’ve been accepted...

Monday, February 19

The Slow March of Progress

The Baby is sleeping particularly badly at the moment, a combination of teething x4 and a filthy cold. As a result The Wife and (to a lesser extent) I are also sleeping really badly too. To survive we're going to bed crazy early, which considering my Eurydice Games time is after the kids go to bed means I'm making little progress at the moment. I am making some though.

The Father-in-law was up at the beginning of the week, and bless him he did a bunch of my chores, which freed up some time. That meant that one evening I finished early enough to do some bagging of bits for the FlickFleet prototype, and then Thursday before Games Night I had a few minutes to cut out my ship dashboards and make a box. With the exception of the rule book (which is currently undergoing a revision), I have an up-to-date copy! That should make teaching it to people a bit easier - playing with out of date dashboards was very confusing.

I also spent a couple of lunch breaks mocking up a FlickFleet box:

Mock up of a FlickFleet box design

What are your thoughts? Obviously, the art is just placeholders at the moment, to get a feel for the composition. Feedback on twitter earlier in the week was it wasn't clear that the shadowy hand was flicking the beige ship - maybe extending the middle to little fingers would help.

Sunday, February 11

FlickFleet Status Update

I'm investing a lot of time into FlickFleet at the moment. A couple of weeks ago it was preparing for the Cardboard Edison Award entry, and then getting Paul's prototype ready to hand over. I've decided to redo the rule book before sending out the remaining prototypes as the one I did for Cardboard Edison was pretty rushed. I think it was ok to learn the game from, but it needed more diagrams and some examples and that was too big a job to do before the submission deadline. I've been working a bit on that this week, and also starting to think about the design assets I need to publish it: box art, pretty rule book and a logo.

Sunday night we had another very broken night's sleep with The Baby (neither 2:25am nor 4:15am are time to start the day - she was confused). I ended up being awake for two and a half hours as in between calming her down enough to get her back to sleep I was lying in bed desperately trying to sleep, but actually designing the logo and box art in my head :-(

Paul and I have also been thinking about another action for ships - the helm. It was in a very early cut of the game but disappeared when the ships began to move with flicking instead of templates. Adding it in again adds another hard decision to make and removes some of the frustration (but also the fun) of a bad flick ending up with a ship pointing in a crazy direction. I need to try it out this week to see if it improves things.

I've a first cut at a manufacturing cost too. Unlike X-Wing I wanted the game to come with everything you need, rather than the bear minimum required to play. It looks like that is going to end up retailing around £35-40, rather than the £25-30 I was aiming for. I'll have to do some market research to see if that's a show stopper for people...

This week's goal, after my father-in-law departs is to finish off and post the prototypes, which means finishing the rules upgrade first!

Monday, February 5

FlickFleet: A Meeting of Minds

This week just gone has been all about FlickFleet. At the beginning of the week I was trying to get everything in place for a Cardboard Edison Award submission. I needed a short intro (easy!), a rulebook (needed a lot of work!) and a less than 5 minute video overview. I revised the rulebook, adding a few more diagrams and three scenarios (only one of which I'd tested!) and then ran out of time. I think it's just about good enough to learn the game from, but it desperately needs another revision with more diagrams and some examples. The final piece of the puzzle was a video which my mate Wilka helped me with. As always when you see your hear yourself in recorded form it was excruciating. I've a face for radio and a voice for silent films. It's hard to imagine that someone could make a game as fun as FlickFleet sound more boring. Next time, I need to bring some energy, enthusiasm and personality.

But, I submitted it anyway. I'm really hoping to get some decent feedback from the process. I'm one of 192 entrants, of which about ten will be chosen as finalists based on the overview, video and rulebook. Those finalists will have to submit a prototype at the end of the month.

With the Award submission out of the way, the next focus is making some prototypes. I spent three of my lunch breaks last week on that: taking the second set of perspex (delivered to me and not random stranger in London) to give to my mate Dan for laser cutting; collecting a bag of pieces from Dan and then collecting the ship dashboards from the printers (my printer is still broken).

I wanted to get at least one finished, before my mate Paul (the co-designer) arrived for the weekend with his family on Friday evening. I had to strip the plastic coatings off the ships, bag the ships and wooden bits, cut out the dashboards, make a box and finally fold and staple the rulebooks. I finished five minutes after they arrived!

Paul's prototype in the flesh

Paul had the original idea for FlickFleet back in the Summer of 2016 and has had several critical ideas during the development. Until now though the only copy in existence has been mine and I've been doing the lion's share of the playtesting and development.

Now Paul finally has his own copy for testing with his friends, and it meant that we had a updated version to try out together over the weekend. We ended up playing all the scenarios (the two I hadn't tried yet twice each, and the other one once) and managed to work out a couple of kinks. The new jigsawed bombers worked much better and the scenarios were surprisingly together and fun considering I'd just thought them up one morning on the way to work and then typed them up. We also spent the day on Sunday with Paul coming up with scenario after scenario. I'm hoping to have four or five in the rulebook and then a bunch more on the website - for a long time this looked like it would be a bit of a stretch, now, not so much!

Scenario testing

This week I'm travelling for work again, but I'm also hoping to get some more prototypes done for sending out to some blind playtesters.