Monday, May 25

The Elephant In The Room

This post is being posted automagically while I'm on holiday in deepest, darkest Devon with the entirety of my fairly large family (14 of us! In one house!). It might take me a few days to respond to comments as I'm not sure if they have the internets in Devon yet.

So I'm getting back into hobby board game publishing as I'm sure you're all aware. I've got a game to publish (Zombology) and some startup funds and a business plan. Go me!

I've bravely decided to eschew KickStarter and just make a small hand-made run like I did in the early days of Reiver Games. I keep harping on about how I've done this before, and I know what I'm getting myself into, yadda, yadda. I've run the numbers and I think I can sell 150 copies at a reasonable price and yet still make enough money to cover my (non-time) costs and the overheads and hopefully have enough left to invest in potential future projects. I made 100 copies of Border Reivers (my first game) by hand and sold them all within a year and then 300 copies of It's Alive! by hand and sold those all within a year too. So 150 sounds pretty achievable, right?

The only thing is that I made Border Reivers in 2006 and It's Alive! in 2007. That's years ago. Literally. Since then, everything's changed. Back in the day there were only a few of us hobby publishers hand-crafting games in our basements/garages/living rooms. If you were a rabid collector of board games with a ton of money you'd won at the casino there weren't that many options to get your hobby publisher fix so by just being there and talking on BGG occasionally, I made a surprising number of sales.

KickStarter changed all that. Now everyone can pitch their hobby game to a room full of people who've just splashed out on something similar. If you want to support the independent hobby publisher which of the 1,500 KickStarter projects you've heard about in the last month are you going to back? All of them? Probably not.

When you've got KickStarter projects up the wazoo all of which have funded on day 3 of 30 and hit the stretch goals that means the components are linen-finished and the artwork was done by Banksy and the game pieces are made of real gold and stone and steel and wood and it comes with miniatures and expansions and the moon on a stick, why would you spend more money on yet another game?Especially one that's been hand-crafted by an idiot and illustrated by the same and the components are cut out by hand and made of paper and card and not even gold inlaid, linen finished card?

There's the question. Is there still a market for my handmade games? Is it big enough for a print run of 150 copies? We'll soon find out...

Monday, May 18

Marching Forward

It's been a week of steady progress this week. I've been working on a logo for my new games publishing company with my dad (a retired art teacher, artist and graphic designer). I don't really want to announce anything about the company until I've got all its accounts set up, and that's waiting on having a bank account to pay for them. I've an appointment with the bank when I get back from the U.S., so that should all get moving then. I'm going to use last week's blog post as my business plan when I go to the bank, that and my previous experience running a board game publisher should carry me through I hope. That blog post also led to a couple more pre-orders, so I'm slowly climbing towards break even point already.

Before then, the main things to work on are the Zombology graphic design and a draft website, plus any Zombology art I feel capable of making. I've got a bunch of time this week before I go on holiday - I'm babysitting for a friend on Monday night and then have four hours on trains on Wednesday as I head down to Sheffield for my quarterly hospital visit. I'm hoping to get next week's blog post written as well as make some progress on Zombology during that time.

One of the other things I'm working on is trying to streamline the rules around the Gurus a bit. Gurus represent an expert in each of the six suits in the game and they provide their owner with an in game benefit in their suit. Initially they all start out neutral, but during the game players can recruit them (or steal them from an opponent). Functionally they work pretty well, but it's a bit clunky and hard to explain, so it will be good if I can come up with something similar enough to still work well, but simpler to explain and smoother to play. We tried something on Thursday lunchtime, but it seemed like a step backwards, so that's fallen by the wayside.

In other news, I had a second consecutive Games Night last week (I've only managed four in the last nine weeks!), but sadly it's the last for another three weeks as I have a week's holiday immediately followed by a trip to St. Louis for work. While in the States I'm going to try to make it to a St. Louis Board Gamers MeetUp on the Wednesday, like I did a couple of years ago in Minneapolis, should be fun!

At Games Night I managed to tick another game off my ten plays list, King of Tokyo is safe too now. But I'm starting to think about another purge (not using anti-aircraft guns!). There's seven or eight games that are great games, but we just don't play them at Games Night, so I'm thinking quite seriously of getting rid of them to free up some more shelf space...

Monday, May 11

The Economics of a Small Print Run

This week I've been making some real progress on my second incarnation as a hobby publisher of small print run games. I've booked an appointment at the bank to set up a business account and I've been getting quotes for printing Zombology too.

When doing a small print run, just as with a large print run, there are three variables you need to balance against each other: total cost, cost per game and quality.

Cost and quality triangle

The three are tightly linked: better quality increases both total cost and cost per game; a bigger print run increases total cost but decreases cost per game due to economies of scale; reducing cost per game lets you increase quality or decrease total cost.

As a hobby publisher who has publicly eschewed KickStarter, all three of these are very important:
  • Total cost: this plus some money for the overheads is my stake in the gamble of running a company. It's coming out of our family's savings, so I don't want this to be too high or I'd be being very irresponsible. First time round there was just The Wife and I in full time employment, and we had some money from an unexpected windfall to invest, but it's different once you've got a kid - priorities change. So low total cost is important to me.
  • Cost per game: in addition to the manufacturing cost I need to pay for: a website, advertising, PayPal fees, convention attendance and many other things. I've previously stated that I want to keep cost per game around 50% of retail so that the sales will cover the other things and hopefully make a small profit. I'm not going to take a salary (again!) but I want the company to at least pay for itself, and if I make a profit I'll have more money to invest in potential future games. Keeping the game price low is also important for boosting sales, especially in other countries. I'm aiming to make the game retail at around £10, which is in the same ballpark as 6 Nimmt! and other similar games in the UK. But that's $15.50 at today's exchange rate in America or 13,80€ in Europe both or which are quite high for that type of game, plus there's shipping on top to make it more expensive still for people outside the UK. Clearly with a small print run I'll be selling directly - there's not enough margin for shops or distributors to take a cut.
  • Quality: I'm aiming for a similar quality to Border Reivers, the first game I self-published back in my Reiver Games days. The cards were on decent card stock and professionally laminated to protect the ink, the box was a tray and lid one with wrap-around artwork, that looked similar to, if not quite up to spec of, a professional game. With a small print run you don't have enough copies to amortise the cost of an artist, so I'm doing it myself (an obvious weakness in the quality). The cards will be cut out by hand but at least the corners will be rounded, so again, it looks of reasonable quality.

Bearing all this in mind I've priced up the cost of box card and printing for 50, 100, 150, 200 and 300 copies. I made 100 copies of Border Reivers by hand and then 300 copies of the first print run of It's Alive! again by hand, so these numbers aren't ridiculous. I've used the same print company as for those two games so I know what quality to expect. I reckon I could sell 50 copies pretty effortlessly - I've already got 8 pre-orders from people who didn't know which game I was going to make or what price I was going to charge! When my friends and family find out I'm sure I can get a few more sales and then a minimal amount of advertising on BGG would wrap up the rest. 100 is a bit more of a stretch, I managed it with Border Reivers, but I had more time to devote to it back then and went to several conventions to raise awareness, which will be a trickier now that I've got a kid. 150 or 200 would be hard work this time round I think and 300 really hard. I managed it with It's Alive! But at that point I'd been doing it for a year or so and had a decent following and a mailing list and everything, none of which I have any more. So it's all down to the numbers:

50: £7.84 per copy, total price £392, profit (if I sell them all at full price and before expenses mentioned above) £108
100: £5.28 per copy, total price £528, profit £472
150: £4.44 per copy, total price £666, profit £834
200: £4.11 per copy, total price £822, profit £1,178
300: £3.66 per copy, total price £1,097, profit £1,903

50 copies is not going to break even once the overheads are accounted for, they'll almost certainly come to more than £108. 100 copies is much better, but at 150 it gets interesting. I'm willing to invest/risk £1,000 in this venture (plus a bot-load of my time for free!), and 150 copies falls well within that. So that's a tick (check for Americans). £4.44 is less than half of £10, but also actually less than half of £9. £9 retail would reduce the cost for Americans by $1.55 and Europeans by 1,38€. It would also shave £150 off my potential profits, but £684 is still plenty for the overheads I'm expecting and should leave some money behind so that I've got more money to invest in another game if I want to in the future. Tick!

We have a plan! Now I've just got to get the artwork done and get all the company stuff set up...

P.S. Anyone want a lovingly hand-crafted, limited edition copy of Zombology for only £9 plus postage and packing? ;-)

Monday, May 4

Feeling Like A Publisher Again

In 2004 I was a hobby games designer. In 2006 I became a hobby board game publisher. In 2008 I became a (bad!) professional board game publisher. In 2011 I was a failed entrepreneur and really didn't feel like designing games any more.

When I had the idea of Codename: Vacuum at the end of 2012 I started my second incarnation as  a hobby games designer. And that's where I stayed for nearly three years.

My Reiver Games failure hung over me, so I've been in no rush to get back into publishing. I know just how much hard work goes into hobby publishing (hand-made Border Reivers-stylee) and how many copies you've got to make and sell to be successful in the professional arena. Also, my confidence took a bad knock: games I thought would sell really well didn't sell and the game I had designed personally was the weakest of the games I published as Reiver Games.

So for the last two and a half years I've been a hobby games designer and nothing more. That's been fun, and I've now got a great support network in the form of Newcastle Playtest. All this time my games have been slowly developing. I've been keen not to rush into publishing again with a sub-par game.

This year's goal of hobby publishing a game is finally starting to take shape and once again I'm starting to feel like a publisher (albeit a hobby self-publisher). Rather than designing the games or doing the basic graphic design required for a prototype, I'm starting to think in terms of production.

This weekend I've made a new prototype of Zombology, trialing a net for a wrap around box label (currently just a white sheet - no art at all).

New Prototype

I'm also working out how best to arrange things on sheets of paper to minimise printing costs. I've got a quality bar that I want to stick to (as good as Border Reivers), and depending on cost I'm going to have to choose a print-run size based on where the economies of scale make it affordable.

All this has happened before, and all this will happen again!

Monday, April 27

Starting Another Games Publisher

A few months of lacklustre progress on anything except my German language Windows Phone app seems finally to be coming to a close. A few of you will remember my ill-fated days running Reiver Games (read the history of this blog for a lesson in how not to run a board games publishing company). Now I'm at it again.

At the beginning of the year I announced my intention to get back into board game publishing (but not via KickStarter!) but I've made next to bot-all progress on that so far. The recent re-imagining of Zombology into a true semi co-op game and the resulting good feedback that has elicited has got me fired up once again and ready to kick off Games Publisher II (a working title!).

I've chosen a company name (which will remain secret until I've claimed the web domain!) and need to start the process of starting another company (does this make me a serial entrepreneur?).

I also need to start work on the art of Zombology more seriously. I'm intending to do it myself, since a very small print run has almost no room for an art budget. I've got some skills, but they are pretty limited so I need to work out what I can do to an acceptable level and temper my vision accordingly.

I'm going to ask my dad (an artist and the cover artist for Border Reivers) to help me come up with a logo for my company, and at the same time I need to get a company bank account set up so that I've got an account with which to start paying for things. I'll need this in place before registering the web domain and getting some hosting organised. I'll be doing it all properly again, which means more hours of bookkeeping and tax returns: joy.

It's all getting very exciting. The current plan is a 50-100 copy print run of Zombology depending on the cost of the printing. I want a number that I'm fairly sure I can sell out in around a year. I've got 8 pre-orders already (before I'd even chosen a game to publish - they're keen!), and I hope to get a few more under my belt before I get the printing done.

I'll be doing some rudimentary marketing as time goes on via a combination of Twitter, Google+ and BoardGameGeek, which started with a poll on Google+ this week to choose the last two suits. I'm happy with Healing Crystals, Homeopathy, Vegan Diet and Psychotherapy, but was less pleased with Reiki and Acupuncture. I asked for suggestions here last week and got several good ideas and then put them up to the vote on Wednesday. Magnets was a clear winner with Aromatherapy a strong second. The suits are locked!

Monday, April 20

Crowdsourcing / Market Research

It's been a good week. I've had my first Games Night for four weeks (and sadly last Games Night for another three due to work travel) and a few more good playtests of Zombology.

I'm now ready to call my first game that I hope to self-publish in my second innings as a board games publisher: It's Zombology.

Last week I made some changes to the scoring of Zombology, making it a true semi-co-op game along with tweaking the way the gurus work to make them more useful/interesting.

We played four games back-to-back at Newcastle Playtest. These guys have played it a lot. Over the last year and a half we've played it at the beginning of almost every session, often a couple of times. It's been through a lot of changes and incarnations, and people are still willing to play it, which is nice. This time the feedback seemed much more positive, Paul who usually doesn't enjoy it said he'd enjoyed it and finally 'got' this version and later Alex described it on twitter as "straight up 'published game'-level fun".

We played a few more games on Thursday, a couple of three player games at lunchtime, and then a couple of seven player games at the beginning of Games Night. DJ and Mal (both of whom have tens of plays of various versions under their respective belts) had good things to say: DJ said it was the best game of it he'd played and Mal (who had said the last version felt further from ready than the one before it) said: 'Don't make too many more changes, it's ready to publish'. Gav's feedback email was entirely positive too.

So I'm ready to start the process of publishing a game again. At least, almost ready. I've got my checklist to work through and there are a few other things I need to sort out, including getting a few playtest copies out to other groups. Before I do that, I need some help - which is where the title of this post comes in.

I need an exposition. A paragraph or so that explains the game and makes it sound so fantastic that your only option on reading it is to wire me vast sums of money to sate your powerful need to play this game immediately. Currently I have:

Unlikely cures vs. the zombie apocalypse
Zombitis is sweeping the globe: it's already killed millions and billions more are at risk. There's no government stockpiled vaccines and pharmaceutical companies have nothing. You and your peers are mankind's last hope. Just a couple of months ago they were ridiculing your 'advanced projects agency' for its crackpot ideas, now they're praying that it might just work. You've got eight weeks to try to cure the zombie plague, will you be heralded as one of the heroes of mankind, or will you back the wrong method and remain a crackpot to the end of your days? Work together to achieve a cure or try to trip up cures that you don't support. Time's running out... 

Which, let's be honest is weak. This is not my strong suit. So I'm appealing to you my loyal readership for some advice/improvements.

Also, I need six things that are unlikely to cure Zombitis. Currently I have:
  • Healing crystals
  • Vegan diet
  • Psychotherapy
  • Homeopathy
  • Reiki
  • Acupuncture
I like the first four, not so sure about Reiki and Acupuncture. I'm also considering Faith healing, Voodoo dolls and Electroshock therapy. What are your thoughts? Got any better ideas?

Monday, April 13

Zombology: The Final Straight?

It's been yet another very busy week, despite the Bank Holiday. The builders finished our new bathroom on Friday, so the house is slowly returning to normal and I can wash at home (which is awesome!).

Tuesday night was Newcastle Playtest, which again was fantastic. I've said before what a great bunch they are, but they've really had a transformative effect on Zombology and Vacuum and I'm sure the same will be true of the other games I work on in the future.

I took Zombology, Dragon Dance and Border Reivers on Tuesday, but I didn't really feel like playing any of them. Zombology was in a bit of a rut, I'd not really had time to properly update Border Reivers, and Dragon Dance hadn't changed since the end of last year. We all got a drink in (did I mention it's held in a pub? Genius!) and then started chatting about games. Alex had an idea he wanted to try out of a semi co-op game. Paul said that a semi co-op should be winnable by more than one player, unlike Zombology, where either someone won or everyone lost.

That's when the lightbulb above my head lit up.

Zombology has been in a weird place for a month or two. I came up with a new version a month or so back that fixed some problems with the previous version but the newer version was worst than the one it 'fixed'. I had no idea how to move on, and I didn't really want to roll back to the previous version, because bits of it were clearly broken.

The idea of more than one winner struck me as really interesting, so we discussed some things we could do and then sat down to try them out. Despite the changes being incredibly minor (just the scoring changed) the game felt completely different. People played co-operatively (and also aggressively!), there was table talk and strategising, some of the weaker cards were suddenly much more important and everyone seemed to enjoy it - even those people who previously had definitely not been fans. We played four games back to back and I was really happy with how it played.

For most of this year I've been thinking that Zombology would probably be the game that I would self-publish this year, but I wasn't happy with the game as it stood. Now I'm much happier. I need to play it a bunch more times (with different numbers of players and different people) but I've got a much better feeling about this version. I'm excited again.

I'll have to print a new version to tweak a couple of things, but we're definitely getting there!

In other news, with five plays this year I've managed to cross Galaxy Trucker off my list of games I own but that I've yet to play ten times. Four of the five plays have been on the excellent iPad app with my boss on the way to or from Manchester on the train. But they count in my book!