Monday, July 24

Eleven Years Wiser?

Eleven years ago this month I founded Reiver Games to self-publish my first game: Border Reivers. Then, as now, I was intending to make a small print run (100 copies for Border Reivers) by hand and to try to sell them via my website, BGG and by attending games clubs and conventions.


A lot has changed since then, both personally and professional and in the world in general. It'll be interesting over the next year to see whether my plan to essentially try to repeat the early successes of Reiver Games still works in the world of 2017, rather than 2006.

So what's changed?

Personal

The month after I founded Reiver Games I experienced my first Multiple Sclerosis symptoms. It took another seven months to get a confirmed diagnosis and then I had a pretty unpleasant couple of years of frequent relapses and constant fear over what my future would hold. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to get on a clinical trial of a treatment that has worked wonders for me - I've now been relapse free for eight years.

When I started Reiver Games I had a job that involved a reasonable amount of international travel, and the 300 hours of hand-making games in the first year, and then 450 in then second year was a struggle to fit in around the travel and wanting to spend some time out of work with The Wife. So I jumped at the chance of investing some of my life insurance money (yay MS!) into the company and quitting my job and going full-time. Of course I now have another job that includes a reasonable amount of international travel and I've still got a (the same!) wife and now two daughters under five too (one's only eight weeks old!). I'd like to spend some time with, so I'm back in the same boat as the beginning of Reiver Games. Thankfully Zombology only takes 45 minutes to make, so I'm looking at 113-150 hours of construction in the first year, assuming I can sell them all within a year, so that burden is lower at least. I'm hoping I can get this done in one or two evenings a week after the daughters have gone to bed.

Professional

Skills-wise I've learnt a lot in the last eleven years, not least having five years of board game publisher experience that I didn't have last time round. I also now manage a decent sized budget at work now, so I'm a lot more finance-savvy than I was the first time around.

I've also got a lot of contacts in the board game business and enough people know me that I can say 'I'm getting back into self-publishing' on BGG and get a few pre-orders purely based on my previous reputation!

Market

This is where things get interesting. I founded Reiver Games three years before Perry Chen, Yancy Strickler and Charles Adler founded Kickstarter. Since then the number of board game publishers has exploded, especially people self-publishing their own games on Kickstarter. Back in 2006 I was pretty unusual as a hobby self-publisher, now everyone's doing it. Furthermore, everyone else is funding games on Kickstarter without risking their own money, and making games that are professionally manufactured and have professional art. Is there still a market for hand-made limited edition runs of games? Especially those with, what I'll charitably call, amateur art? I'm betting a chunk of my savings on the hope that I can find 150-200 people who would pay £10 for a simple-looking hand-made game. Only time will tell whether it's a dumb wager to make...

Monday, July 17

Final Zombology Art Review

My parents have been up this week, so I've had a chance to pick the brains (how appropriate!) of my dad, a retired art teacher. I've been trying to finalise the artwork for Zombology ahead of getting a proof copy done by the printers to check the colours look OK and that the lamination works on top of the new art (if there's too much ink the lamination doesn't adhere). Over the last couple of weeks I've been crowdsourcing advice on the art/graphic design, from dad, The Wife, BGG, Google+ and twitter.

First up is the box designs. I've run three polls on BGG (1, 2 and 3). In the comments of the first and second I got some other ideas and JPotter came up with something that looked like this:



Which I really liked, so I tried to mimic it (see above). I've also adopted a similar style for the back of the box:


In addition to that, I've also updated the card art (after my last attempt here which got feedback here and on Google+). I tried to incorporate all the feedback I got, reducing the number of colours, swapping the icons on the Guru, making the text bolder on the sides of the cards, getting rid of the gradient fills and generally tidying things up a bit:


What do you think? Let me know any comments you have in the next couple of days - that way I can act on them before it goes to the printer.

Monday, July 10

A Gamble And A Plan

I've spent this week (and by this week I mean the hours of 9-11pm, holding an almost sleeping baby in one arm while) trying to finalise the art for the new version of Zombology taking into account the feedback I received here and on Google+ for the last version I posted. With the exception of the box art, it's almost done.

With it almost done, I don't want to share what I've got until I've finished, so instead I thought I'd talk about my business plan instead this week. When I ran Reiver Games my initial business plan consisted of 'Make games by hand, without taking any salary and sell them for twice the printing/pieces cost so I've got some money to cover expenses, trade show attendance and to invest in new games'. Seriously, that was it. It's a wonder I was at all successful. 

But I was. Fast forward two years and I'd nearly quadrupled my initial stake and I had my life insurance payout to partially invest. This was the moment when I needed a rock solid business plan, but again I had none. The result this time? Losing a bunch of money, selling games to liquidators at 19p each and two years with no salary earnt at all. That'll teach me.

This time round I'll be trying to replicate the first half of that, not the second one! But, I also need to ensure that I learn from my mistakes. I'm older and hopefully wiser this time, and with experience now of managing a large budget in my day job. So I need to make sure I've though out how this could go down.

As with any investment, this is a gamble: I could win big, or I could lose it all. I'm intending to invest £1,000 in the company to fund the setup costs, stationery, website hosting and printing of Zombology. So I've potentially lost a grand. Which would be bad. I've already got a bunch of pre-orders, so assuming everyone who has pre-ordered actually pays for a copy, that's down to £840 at risk. Still a significant chunk of cash.

I'm still hovering between making 150 and 200 copies of Zombology v2 and to take advantage of the economies of scale I need to decide this before ordering the printing next month. If I sold them all (I'll be giving a few away to reviewers) then the potential payout is £1,500 to £2,000, so at worst I lose £840 and at best I gain £1,000 on top of my original stake. Now that gain also has to pay for a bunch of things: website hosting, stationery, travel and expenses for attending conventions or games clubs, so it'll be less than that, but that's an upper limit on my payout in the first year.

I've drafted out what I think will go down:

  • Sales of 20 copies in September (pre-orders, currently at 17)
  • Sales of 10 copies in October (launch buzz)
  • Sales of 10 copies in December (Christmas pressies!)
  • Sales of 50 copies at the UK Games Expo next June (there were over 16,000 unique attendees this year and a 15 minute game for 3-8 players can be shown to a lot of people over three days)
  • Other than that, just five copies a month through my website and the BGG Marketplace.


That's 135 gone in the first year at an average effort of 2.5 hours of game manufacturing a week (should be just a single night a week of effort on average). If sales dropped to two per month in the second year with another 10 at the UK Games Expo in 2019 then that would be another 35 taking me to 170 in total.

Now obviously there's quite a lot of risk in that. Is there still a market for hand-made games in this era of Kickstarter? 17 people say yes, but that's a shed load less than 200 or even 150. Are my sales estimates accurate? Can I shift the games through BGG? My website? Is 50 copies at £10 each reasonable at the Expo? The numbers I'm basing this on are 11 years old, and pre-Kickstarter.

Pretty soon I'm going to have to make a decision about 150 vs. 200. It'll be time to put my money where my mouth is. Literally.

Monday, July 3

I Need Your Help, Please!

If you read this blog regularly you are among my biggest fans - thank you very much for your support over the last 11 years of my game design career. As a regular reader (you're not? Ok, start here and then continue until you're up to date!), you'll know I'm about to get into self-publishing hand-made games again. I've got previous for this - the first two very successful years of Reiver Games from July 2006 until July 2008 when I made 400 games by hand (Border Reivers and It's Alive!). But things have changed. There was no kickstarter back then, and certainly in year two I had built up a bit of a fanbase and had a mailing list of interested gamers.

This time round there's a lot more competition through kickstarter and as the father of two young (one's only five weeks old!) girls I'll be busier than I was first time around. So I need your help to be successful. If you're interested, here's a few ways you can help my second board games publishing effort be a success:

Do you own Zombology, and have played it?

Please provide an honest rating and comments on BoardGameGeek, please also download the second edition rules and introduce it to new people and let them know I'll be making another hand-made run of it shortly if they'd like a copy of their own.

Do you own Zombology but you haven't played it?

Please also download the second edition rules and introduce it to new people and let them know I'll be making another hand-made run of it shortly if they'd like a copy of their own. Then please provide an honest rating and comments on BoardGameGeek.

Do you own one of my hand-made games?

If you have a copy of Border Reivers, It's Alive! first edition (grey box) or Zombology, please could you provide a quote I can put on my website about the build quality of my hand-made games?

You don't own Zombology?

You can still provide feedback on the new rules, if you know anyone who likes zombies, mad scientists, fillers, semi- co-operative games, card-drafting, and/or hand-made and rare games to the Zombology BGG page or this blog. Tell them there's a new version coming shortly and they can pre-order a copy of the world's only game about curing the zombie plague using healing crystals and magnets from me for only £10 + P&P.
Thanks in advance for spreading the word!

Monday, June 26

First Steps Again

It's been another busy week as I embark on setting up my second board games publishing company. I've a Trello board of all the things I need to do as part of that process, and this week I've ticked a few of those off (and added a few more!).

Last week's post about the Zombology art garnered some good feedback, so I'm incorporating that, I also ran a couple of polls (one on twitter and one on Google+) about what people would want or expect from a hand-crafted game as market research. There were some interesting differences between the two results (although the sample of Google+ was much bigger, so it might be closer to the truth).

On Thursday I'd taken the morning off to go to register Daughter The Second's birthday, so I squeezed in a trip to a small business adviser and the bank too. I prepared a business case for year one in preparation for the small business adviser, but he wanted me to send it to him in a different format, so I'm now re-jigging it - still a worthwhile effort as I have to add in some extra information that makes it more useful.

On top of all of that, I've been obsessing about a game idea that Paul and I had last summer. This week I've had another idea for that (as yet un-prototyped) game. My sister-in-law and her husband visited on the weekend, so I tried a very rough test using a few cobbled together components including toy food made out of MDF! I think the game has loads of potential - I just need to start prototyping and testing it properly!

FlickFleet early prototype

Monday, June 19

Feedback Wanted on New Zombology Look

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I've been working on the Zombology artwork for the next version I'm making. The picture below shows the art for the version I released in November 2015 as part of NaGa DeMon. Along the top are an example of each of the therapy cards (one of each number and suit) and along the bottom are the Guru, Pay Rise, Overrun, Army Perimeter cards and the back images for the two decks:


There were a few things I wanted to improve for the next version. The art was pretty rushed for the NaGa DeMon version - it was essentially prototype art, compounded by the fact that I'm not actually a very good artist and I couldn't afford to hire one either. In particular I was unhappy with the Army Perimeter card and although I quite liked the scientist icon on the back of the Epidemic cards, it was not in keeping with the rest of the art.

In addition, a few things came up during testing:

  • the Homeopathy background was a bit too dark, 
  • the Guru cards were too similar to the corresponding therapy cards, 
  • it was easy to confuse the Pay Rise and Overrun cards,
  • the Psychotherapy suit was confusing as it was the only real therapy included.
To address these issues, I've spent a decent chunk of time over the last few weeks trying to improve the art to fix these problems and just give it a better look:



I'd really appreciate any feedback on the new versions. Are they better or have I made things worse? Anything specific you like or don't like?

Monday, June 12

Zombology: A Game in Three Acts

After reading very positive reviews on BGG and getting agreement on Twitter I bought the Kobold Guide to Games Design by Mike Selinker. It's a series of essays by gaming giants (Richard Garfield, Steve Jackson, Dale Yu, Rob Daviau, Andrew Looney and several more I'd never heard of, but should have!). I've only just started it, but already I've coming across an essay by Jeff Tidball (designer of Pieces of Eight) about how games should be formed in three acts, like a story, book or film.


Jeff's conceit is that the three stages of a game correspond to:
  1. Setting the stage: The first act sets the boundaries of the conflict, allowing players to work out how and where to focus their efforts,
  2. The meat of the gameplay: The players will be competing trying to get into position for a push for victory,
  3. The push for victory: The player's will be attempting to strike for a game win, or stop others doing the same.

It struck me while reading the essay that that description neatly fits the way a game of Zombology plays out, despite the fact it only lasts ten minutes!

The first act is the first couple of hands - you're playing the game blind at this point - you've no idea which therapies the players are supporting, or even which ones could possibly lead to a victory. At this point you have a crazy optimism of a crackpot scientist who believes it is possible to cure the Zombie Plague with Homeopathy, or A Nice Cup of Tea. With everyone in the same position, it feels like a co-operative game - we can do this! We can cure the plague.

This phase can last a different length of time for different players - in a game with fewer players someone might start with the Cure for Healing Crystals, and hence know this is a good therapy to back, while others might not see a high valued card for several rounds.

As new and better cards come into the draft you start to build an understanding of what is possible in this game - which suits are being backed and, as you start to see the 4s, 5s and 6s going round, which suits have the potential to lead to a victory. In the next five or six rounds the battle lines are drawn. It's very unlikely that you can win the game as the only player to have played the winning therapy - you have to work together to get the evidence required to cure the Zombie Plague. As the game develops you start to see teams forming, as two or more players back one therapy while others back different therapies. Some therapies may not have been backed at all, or only by a single player - these will wither and die as the players focus on the therapies most likely to effect a cure.

You now have shifting alliances - it has morphed into a team game (where the teams are changing as people get into therapies that have potential). Players will work together to help a cure they can win in, or fight tooth and nail to scotch a cure that will lose them the game. Players will be keeping track of who has the Cures they've seen and whether a player is likely to play one this turn. If so, can they share that victory? Or do they need to try and stop it?

As the game nears the eighth round and the prospect of total annihilation of humanity looms the pressure builds - is it possible to cure the plague? Can you win, or must you doom seven billion souls to save face?

The final act is the when a player has the Cure in hand and is in a position to play it and win. They may have already done what they can to protect themselves from another player's spoiling, or they may be relying on others to help protect them for the shared victory. Others might be trying to stop them, ride on their coattails to victory or trying to see if there's a double (or triple) Cure that they can back sufficiently to also share in the success. The player with the Cure is excited - can the card be successfully played? Is there too much risk (you might know who has the ability to stop you with a well-timed zombie attack)? Could you even feint and play a different card, trying to draw out the attacks early while passing the Cure to the next player who would also play it?

The three acts analogy is an interesting lens to view a game through, and I'll definitely be considering it when I return to working on Vacuum.